Out Here

Jumpin' jive

Big Night in Cowtown
Cowboys and Indians

The very first bars of Cowboys and Indians' second album are enough to convert even the most dubious listener. Lean in. Must be the way the sliding horns slap their way over the spare landscape of playful gee-tar strum. Then the whir of a lap steel, and that bellowing voice: "Lately I've been thinkin' about things that I hold dear..." Smooth but punchy, and oh-so thick. Car stereo, jukebox, or cruddy Walkman can't suppress the spirit Cowboys and Indians conjure up, Ouija-board style, in their prayers to the specters of Western swing. You can practically hear Lyndon Johnson humming and snapping his fingers in his grave.

Big Night in Cowtown proves again that Cowboys and Indians know how to translate the heat of their live show to a cold, laser-read disc. They make it sound like the golden years of Columbia, like Bob Wills on a tight night, like Ernest Tubb in the studio before the hangover; the fans find in their hands a fine distillation of bona fide nostalgia and affection. Sure, the 16 songs are a drier, cleaner, reverb-driven take on a Cowboys throwdown at the Sons of Hermann Hall, but all the best old Nashville recordings pack that gritty, eight-track echo--perfect for a spin on the Victrola and a whirl around the dance floor.

For nearly eight years, frontman Erik Swanson--with his Stetson, trombone, and velvety baritone--has spearheaded one of the finest acts in the region, his hyper-authentic take on Western swing not only paving the way for Dallas' belated love affair with swing, but transcending it by a hundred miles and 40 years. The members of Cowboys and Indians graciously pass on the novelty, and the chance at the trendy Big Time, to plant their feet on the more solid ground of reverence and know-how. Big Night in Cowtown showcases Swanson's songwriting: He makes what's actually brand-new sound like he found these gems in the attic and dusted them off; it's amazing to discover that the old Wills tune "Drunkard's Blues" is the only cover on the whole record. All the songs that have become crowd favorites at live shows--"Stompin' at the Sons," "Big Night in Cowtown," and "She's My Baby" among them--are in place, making this a much-appreciated follow-up to the band's 1995 debut The Western Life.

Cowboys guitar genius Billy King carries the band's horn and rhythm sections on a smooth undercurrent of twang, just occasionally pushing out front for an unassuming affair with the listener. He weaves his six-string spell through the gentle "Lone Star Heart," the honking "You Never Want the Water," and the infectious "Takin' out the Trash." But really, Big Night gives new meaning to the word "democracy," and that brand of sonic balance means that the rasp of the snare, the throttle of the upright bass, and the gleam of the trumpet get the same star billing as Swanson's voice and King's hollow-body. Thank goodness for that too, 'cause a real jitterbug's in the details.

--Christina Rees

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Christina Rees