Asleep at the wheel

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

They call themselves Hot Club of Cowtown, are based out of Austin, and play a vigorous acoustic mixture of Western swing and 1920s hot jazz. So one might expect that this trio's genesis was sparked by some primal musical experience in an old Texas dancehall, or the Left Bank of the Seine, or some smoky jazz club. Hardly.

No, this spiritually authentic and instrumentally impressive group originated from an unexpected musical locale -- specifically, the Tower Records store at Broadway and Fourth Street in downtown Manhattan. Guitarist Whit Smith, the band's founding force and a player since his youth in New England, had started working at the store in early 1989. He was a rock-and-roller who had been plying his original material in bands along the East Coast. But then one day at Tower, he had an epiphany.

"I heard Hank Williams and Jimmy Bryant and Bob Wills all in the same day," he explains. It was like a burning bush on the road to Damascus, and it set Smith on a path that would lead him to Austin and eventually put Hot Club on a vigorous road schedule across North America. So even if Texas was one of the last things informing Smith's musical oeuvre a decade ago, by the time he and Hot Club fiddler Elana Fremerman arrived here in 1998, their music fit like an old cowboy boot, albeit one with fancy trimming. Since hitting Austin less than two years ago, Hot Club of Cowtown has released two CDs on HighTone Records and become one of the city's busiest acts in the local roots venues, at least when it's in town.

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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Within a week after Smith heard the music that would capture his imagination, he also saw a guitarist who helped change his style -- the late Danny Gatton. "Here's this guy playing roots music in this crazy guitar style, which was good, because at the time I was still playing solid-body guitars and still had a lot of rock-and-roll rolling around inside me," explains Smith. "Then I got to meet Danny, and he told me to go find all these records, and I went out for the next two years looking for those records."

Smith found those records and more, and he avidly absorbed the new sounds that entranced him. "I started to put together an instrumental band, because I just didn't know anybody who sang, and I didn't sing. And I loved all the country jazz, like when you would buy an Ernest Tubb record, and one out of 25 records would have an instrumental by his band that would just be smokin'. So I wanted to put together this elite band that played all those kinds of tunes. Then I discovered Western swing, and I found a whole lot more than just one out of every 25 records were like that."

Smith's first stab at playing the music he was soaking up was a combo called The Dixie Riddle Cups, with three guitar players and a steel guitarist. "That's because all the guitar geeks loved that stuff. I started thinking it would be good to have a fiddle player," he explains. They appeared at such East Village cafés as the well-known (but now closed) Cafe Sine, and after inviting a fiddler to play, "it was like, hey, that's starting to really sound like Western swing. All of a sudden it kind of clicked.

"So I saw Elana had an ad in the Village Voice, and I called her up, and she came down to my place. And I had another friend over, and we were doing instrumentals, and Elana came in, and she started to play, and it was like, here was a young person who wanted to play and be, like, in a band. Not another mercenary session guy -- nothing wrong with that, but it wasn't the idea."

Fremerman, a Kansas City native, had something of a double life growing up that presaged her later career as a Western swing fiddler. Her mother, a violinist, and her stepfather, a pianist, were accomplished classical musicians. At her father's house she kept a horse she'd bought for a dollar and pursued her love of horseback riding. "So by the time I was in fifth grade, I had this sort of split existence," she says. "One part of my life was horses and going off and doing that, and the other was like youth symphony and orchestra -- this horsey Western thing, and this rigorous classical thing."

After attending college in New York , Fremerman divided her time between various post-college jobs in Manhattan and stints working on a ranch in Colorado as a wrangler, where she also played in the ranch owner's Western band. Looking for a similar musical situation in New York, she took out an ad in the Village Voice's classifieds. "I specified in my ad that I wanted to play in a gigging band -- a band that was already formed, so I could just get in there and play," she recalls. "But then, when I went over to Whit's house that day, it wasn't like I was going to groan, because it was so fun to play together, and I thought Whit played with such energy that I'd never really encountered."

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.

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."

To achieve that goal, Hot Club has kept busy on tour, traveling eight out of this year's 12 months. "As soon as we had a presentable act -- which was as soon as we got a bass player -- we started going on the road," Fremerman says. "We really have been touring since then."

"We're trying to make it a huge audience," explains Smith. "When we were signed by HighTone, they asked us where we wanted the CD to be stocked in the record stores. Did we want it in country? We said rock, because that's where the young people go, the people who really buy records. I don't think we want it to be obvious that we are one thing or another thing. We want it to just be the music, just be, 'Here's a bunch of people who play what they really like, and play it full-tilt for you, whether it's at an old folks home, at a festival, at a nightclub or a wedding or a party.'"

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