About three more days in the studio is what singer-violinist Elana James says she and her Hot Club of Cowtown bandmates would have needed to complete an album with producer Lloyd Maines in 2017.
With 10 songs nearly 80 percent finished, though, “things got very hectic,” she recalls, without offering specifics. Running out of money to pay for the project didn’t help, “and then time kept on flipping,” James adds.
Nearly two years flipped by before the Austin, Texas-based Western swing trio, sans Maines, returned to the studio to track the bulk of what became Wild Kingdom, which arrived Sept. 27 via Gold Strike Records.
James admits she doesn’t like to waste anything, so she was determined to include choice Maines-produced recordings on her band’s new album.
“I had been agitating to complete those sessions since the day we left,” James says, “so we harvested four from those sessions we did with Lloyd at Bismeaux Studios [in Austin], and we mixed them in with all the new stuff that we recorded in April at Fire Station Studios [in San Marcos].”
Those four done with Maines in May 2017 — covers of “Three Little Words,” “Loch Lomond” and “How High the Moon,” plus the James-written “High Upon the Mountain” — were combined with 10 more originals (six by James, four by guitarist-singer Whit Smith), with Chris Bell engineering those recordings.
Hot Club of Cowtown’s determination and work ethic are matched by what James calls the band’s “global set of ambitions.” Although James and Smith have been based in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World since late 1997 (bassist-singer Jake Erwin joined the band in 2001), HCOC does not play hometown gigs with regularity (and the same can be said of fellow Western swing stalwarts Asleep at the Wheel).
“There are certainly people who are musicians living in Austin, and they make their living playing music,” James explains. “But to have a career as a touring artist — where you can go to Chicago and have an audience, you go to San Francisco and you have a crowd, you fly to London and they’re expecting you and they know your songs — you can’t do that by staying in Austin. You can’t do that by staying anywhere, really, unless I’m a dinosaur and the model has changed.”
The way James sees it, “people understand Austin” and what it represents, so moving there more than 20 years ago was essentially a no-brainer: “Playing Western swing, it made more sense for us psychologically to be touring and say, ‘We’re based in Austin’ than to be ‘We’re based in San Diego.’
“[Austin] has such a positive association; it denotes a rootsy, unpretentious, easygoing vibe: breakfast tacos, Willie Nelson, flip-flops and those kinds of things,” she adds with a laugh. “The dream is still alive there, despite the traffic.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Hot Club of Cowtown on tour (schedule subject to change):
Oct. 19-20: Dakota Jazz Club — Minneapolis
Oct. 30: Continental Club — Austin, Texas
Nov. 5-19: U.K. tour
Dec. 8: Gruene Hall — Gruene, Texas
Photo by Ryan Saul