Bob Wills has always been a core inspiration for the Hot Club of Cowtown’s sound, but it has taken the Texas-based trio a dozen years to fully honor the King of Western swing. A fortuitous tour in England last spring led the band to London’s Specific Sound studio, where they spent two days recording a 14-song marathon of only Bob Wills tunes. The result, What Makes Bob Holler, is a lively tribute to the American music icon, respecting Wills’ legendary music while putting Hot Club’s own signature on these songs. “We have been meaning to make this album for a long time,” says Elana James, who co-founded Hot Club with Whit Smith (they’re joined by bassist Jake Erwin).
Launched in 1994, the Hot Club of Cowtown has grown to be the most globe-trotting, hardest-swinging Western swing trio on the planet, continuing to develop a unique sound inspired by the band’s namesakes: the hot jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli of the Hot Club of France, and Bob Willis & the Texas Playboys.
And with the imminent release of What Makes Bob Holler on Proper American on February 1, the Austin-based band looks to a busy 2011. They start the year opening seven U.K. arena dates with Roxy Music, followed by a taping of NPR’s Mountain Stage in Charleston, W.V. in late January and an appearance at South by Southwest (SXSW) in March — before touring coast to coast in support of the album.
Bob Wills’ music — in this case the recordings of radio shows from 1946-47 called the Tiffany Transcriptions that are the fundamental inspiration for HCCT’s repertoire and style —offers a terrific platform for some ace musicianship in the form of Smith’s guitar, James’ fiddle and Erwin’s nimble bass. By spotlighting Wills’ early, pre-World War II catalogue, the disc happily matches obscure B-sides with some of Wills’ most popular work. Tunes like “Big Balls in Cowtown” and “Stay All Night” are numbers that “people always love when we play them live,” says James, “so it was a no-brainer to gather them into a record.” Other songs, like “Osage Stomp” and “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” might not be as well known, but they are the type of tunes that originally attracted Smith and James to Wills’ music. “We’re playing what knocked us out about Western swing in the first place — the early fiery energy and jazzy improvisations,” says James.
By 1998 Smith and James had relocated to Austin, Texas, and released their debut, Swingin’ Stampede, on HighTone Records. Seven more albums over the next decade generated much critical acclaim and a devoted following. The New York Times’ Neil Strauss proclaimed the Hot Club “conscious always that above all else, the music is for dancing and an old-fashioned good time.” Craig Havighurst, in Nashville’s Tennessean, calls them “one of the most original groups on the Americana circuit, deserving of attention both live and on record” while the Sunday Times of London lauded HCCT as “the world’s most engaging Western Swing band — their shows are all about energy and joie de vivre . . . the devil-may-care style that combined the rigor of Jazz with the down-home sentiment of country and earthiness of the blues — it is as a live act that they have made their greatest impact.”
What Makes Bob Holler arrives on the heels of 2009’s Wishful Thinking, an Americana radio Top 100 album on which HCCT blended their love of hot jazz and Western swing with original songs, a Tom Waits cover and forays into more eclectic territory. The Austin Chronicle’s Jim Caliguiri called it “the Cowtowners at their peak” and David Eldridge, in the Washington Times, describes the disc as “one of the year’s most unexpected listening pleasures.”
What Makes Bob Holler is something of an 180-degree swing from Wishful Thinking’s more eccentric set list. It is the first time HCCT has focused on only one style for an entire album and they are proud enough of the results to express interest in doing more. “There are so many great songs that we didn’t get to,” says James. “We’re going to have to make a box set, eventually, but we’re just going to make it piecemeal,” adds Smith with a laugh.
While the new disc focuses on Bob Wills music, HCCT’s live show will remain a engaging mix of what the band does best — whatever moves them at the moment. James reveals that the band often plays without a set list. “We have faith in the system that is the band. This energy that we plug into and it takes us away.” Smith describes their shows as “like a rock ’n’ roll show” and “people pick up on the energy and the sincerity.”