Hot Club of Cowtown Ride the "Ghost Train" – October 2002
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Hot Club of Cowtown Ride the "Ghost Train"  Print

By Ken Burke, October 2002

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"In my mind, I was thinking, 'I'll hook up with Elana she'll play hot fiddle, and I'll play guitar,'" remembers Smith. "We didn't even think about singing. So, it wasn't a complete notion. So, I met her out in Colorado. We were going to go to Texas right away, but I had this friend in California who had a beach house we could rent for $300 a month right down there on Pacific Beach in San Diego."

Initially a duo, later with bassist T.C. Cyran, Fremerman and Smith practiced hard and began playing for tips in Balboa Park. Fremerman, who had been a street musician since her teen years, considers sidewalk performing a "very honest transaction."

"You can see what people are enjoying, what they're electrified by, and what they keep walking by. So, I think that helped us build a crowd pleasing repertoire in a no-pressure environment."

Encouraged by members of Asleep At The Wheel and High Noon, the Hot Club moved to Austin after a year in California and quickly found themselves set up with a booking agent, a contract with HighTone Records, and Billy Horton on upright bass. Horton's love of vintage equipment dictated the sound of the band's first two albums, "Swingin' Stampede" and "Tall Tales."

However, Horton found that Hot Club's non-stop touring limited his ability to indulge in a myriad of side projects, including a highly regarded band he shared with brother Bobby. His departure signaled Jake Erwin's arrival.

Erwin, 28, has slapped bass with legendary rockabilly Ronnie Dawson, the Asylum Street Spankers, Wayne Hancock and as part of Dave Stuckey's Rhythm Gang, where he first met Smith. However, the Tulsa native is probably best known as one of rockabilly Kim Lenz's original Jaguars.

According to Smith, Erwin helps Hot Club achieve its renowned fat sound, the secrets of which he gladly reveals.

"We get a pretty big sound for a three-piece band. For one, Jake plays with gut strings, which has sort of a boomp, boomp, boomp that gives us a big attack right away. Then he slaps the bass, so he's getting a percussive sound as well. Then, I'm playing four to the bar rhythm, but I'm changing the chord shaping sometimes every beat, sometimes every other beat. Then Elana is chunking on her fiddle along with the singing. So, everyone's doing almost twice the work, just as if we were a larger band."

Fremerman and Smith agree - not a completely rare experience - that Erwin has pumped new life into Hot Club with the former declaring appreciatively, "Whit, Jake and I are now focused on making records that sound good and will get played rather than something that fetishizes a certain era's acoustics."

Their first step in this new sonic direction came with their 2000 release "Devilish Mary." It took Hot Club two years to conjure material for the final album on their current HighTone contract "Ghost Train," a project that contrasted the creative methods of the trio's two vocalists.

"I tried to finish my songs before we got to the studio," laughs Fremerman. "Whit was inking his down moments before he cut them, which kind of got on my nerves."

"Our schedule doesn't give us the comfortable down time that you ideally have to have in order to write songs," Smith points out. "We're always traveling, always trying to make a gig. When we get home for two or three days which is all we ever get, we've got to make a lot of phone calls, order merchandise, line up gigs or do taxes."

That said, "Ghost Train" features more original material than any previous Hot Club album and tests the trio's deft collaborative abilities. "We mostly create individually and then come together and ask the others 'Can you do this?'" explains Smith. "On 'Secret Of Mine,' Elana wrote this little instrumental interlude and told me what to play. Then, on 'It Stops With Me,' which has a Russian or Gypsy melody, I wrote that and told her what to play. But she still had to put the delivery, feeling, and the soul into it or the tune wouldn't have turned out as well as it did."

At the helm of "Ghost Train" is former Lucinda Williams sideman Gurf Morlix, who was recommended to Hot Club by labelmate Tom Russell.

In addition to producing Williams' early albums, he has also worked behind the glass for Robert Earl Keen. But what did Morlix bring to the proceedings that the Hot Club wasn't previously capable of accomplishing?

"Well," Smith drolly responds, "he knew how to turn the tape recorder on." Then, after the laughter stopped, he added, "I think he was especially good with the singing. He'd listen carefully and tell us if he believed it or not. Gurf was very organized, and he had a schedule, which a good producer does. It's like a record is a wild herd of cattle, and it's his job to get all the cattle into the corral. In that respect, Gurf Morlix is one fine cowboy."

Fremerman feels that because of the success of the "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack "we're in the right point of the tide."

"Because," she explains, "You have bands like Nickel Creek who are doing well, the Dixie Chicks have gone acoustic, and those are all very nice omens for us."

Until that tide turns decidedly in their favor, the road continues to beckon the Hot Club Of Cowtown. A determined Fremerman quotes one of Johnny Gimble's favorite sayings, "'You get paid to travel, and the playing is free.' It rips the fabric of other parts of your life, but if you believe in it, you can't help yourself."

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