Asleep at the wheel

Hot Club of Cowtown calls Austin home, but never for long

Fremerman also brought into the fold her friend Joe Kerr, a piano player from San Antonio "who could play jazz and play classical and he could do Western tunes and he could do the honky-tonk feel," explains Smith. "He played with that subtle Western color, and he was technically awesome." With the pieces falling into place, they started playing out in some East Village clubs, however inauspiciously. "We played at Brownie's for not a soul, not one soul. We then played Sidewalk Café for only four people, and we knew those people really well."

Eventually, after finding a singer, they landed a Monday-night residency at a Western-themed club in the East 30s called The Rodeo Bar. Over two years of weekly gigs, the group -- now known as Western Caravan -- became something of a sensation, enchanting New Yorkers with the exotic sounds (to Manhattanites, at least) of Western swing. But with a large band that included a singer, two guitarists, piano, fiddle, steel guitar, and sometimes more, it wasn't entirely feasible to get out on the road and spread the word. But then Sean Mencher of the rockabilly band High Noon (who sometimes backs local legend Ronnie Dawson) suggested they consider scaling down to a small combo in order to tour.

When Fremerman again split from New York for Colorado after landing a job in a country band there, Smith followed her. They migrated soon after to San Diego, thanks to a cheap place to stay that a friend of Smith's offered, and started honing their act as Whit & Elana, busking on Sundays in Balboa Park. Eventually picking up a bass player, they followed Smith's original dream of basing the band in Texas, and, after a year in San Diego, moved to Austin.

Damn yankees: Hot Club of Cowtown's Whit Smith (left) and Elana Fremerman formed the band while living in Manhattan. Bassist Billy Horton joined after he found his way out of the 1950s.
George Brainard
Damn yankees: Hot Club of Cowtown's Whit Smith (left) and Elana Fremerman formed the band while living in Manhattan. Bassist Billy Horton joined after he found his way out of the 1950s.

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The Capital City took the band to heart. By then they'd adopted the evocative and descriptive name Hot Club of Cowtown, and they quickly landed a prestigious weekly happy-hour slot at the Continental Club. And they got a boost from Don Walser, who had met Smith and Fremerman in New York and urged his Austin-based booking agent Nancy Fly to take on the group. At about the same time, Austin guitarist Jim Stringer hipped some people at HighTone Records -- who had ignored the first tape Hot Club sent them -- to the outfit. Dallas rockabilly singer Kim Lenz, also a HighTone act, helped seal the deal by "going on and on and on [to the label] about how she'd seen this band that they had to have," explains Smith.

One might think that the sometimes insular Austin scene would have been resistant to this New York City-bred outfit playing a style far more indigenous to Texas, but that was hardly the case, says Fremerman. "As an outsider, I love the way Austin has treated us. It is incredible that we finally moved here and we've gotten the reception we did. I should get up every morning and thank my lucky stars, because that doesn't just happen."

Although the combo had started out as an instrumental group, "If we were going to get gigs, somebody was going to have to sing, and that ended up being me," Smith says. Fremerman also started to sing too, figuring, "Hey, if he can do that..."

The Hot Club became complete when Smith and Fremerman recruited upright-bass player Billy Horton to join -- an obvious choice. Smith already knew Billy's brother Bobby; the siblings have their own rockabilly band, The Horton Brothers. As Smith explains, "When we got to Austin, we ended up going to Billy and Bobby's and sleeping on their floor. Then I ended up sleeping in their kitchen for a year, which was interesting."

Horton, a native of Beaumont, was playing with the Asylum Street Spankers at the time. For him, it was a natural fit. "They needed a bass player, and I was looking for another gig, and I liked Western swing, so I joined them."

And as Smith tells it, Horton completed their picture of what Hot Club of Cowtown should be. "He had the look and ambition and drive and knew all the material, and he wanted to tour."

A listen to the band's latest album, Tall Tales, finds the Hot Club coming to fruition. Mixing Western swing classics, traditional fiddle tunes, old-school jazz material, and the band members' own originals, it's a well-balanced mix of old-school authenticity and modern energy. Their style of music -- in addition to being highly portable, thanks to the acoustic trio setup -- appeals to a wide range of listeners, from the neo-swing kids to oldsters to fans of classic country to folk audiences.

"I think what we've been successful at doing is making all this stuff available to everybody, and not just isolating a certain group," Smith notes. "The quick pay-off is, you fit into a scene, and pretty much everyone in the scene supports you. When we go out and play in different parts of the country for people who don't know even know what Western swing is, they assume we're playing bluegrass."

Fremerman feels that "there are so many different people who like what we do, or could like what we do if they just heard it. Sort of like that Borders Books demographic, those disposable-income, 20s to 50s people."

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