Asleep at the wheel

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.

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."