For Elana James, there's life after Hot Club of Cowtown

Ken Burke, March 2007

"It's been a lot of hard work over the last year and a half, clawing back out to the place where we'd been before, and there's been an enormous amount of work with that." Thus speaks Elana James, better known as Elana Fremerman, the fiddle-playing co-founder of the hot jazz aggregation Hot Club of Cowtown, which abruptly disbanded in 2005. Since then, she has toured behind Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, created a solo debut album for her own Snarf Records label and re-christened herself Elana James.

Speaking from her parent's home, James tells the story behind her previous band's break-up. "We reached a really great point and were kind of on a roll where we were going on some really neat tours and doing all sort of things," she says. "At that point in 2005, Whit (Smith) - the Hot Club guitar player - decided that he just didn't want to continue with the band's format. I think he just sort of had enough of it, and that was very disappointing to me because I loved that band, and I love that kind of music, and I loved playing with Whit. So, it was really a major, major bummer."

Smith and Fremerman - as she was then billed - met while playing for Western Caravan, a touring cowboy swing outfit during the early to mid-‘90s. Striking out on their own, they enlisted a bass player and played for tips until they achieved a foothold in clubs. Their recordings for HighTone helped them garner steady bookings worldwide, earned them a guest spot on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" and led to tours opening for Nelson and Dylan.

Learning as she worked, James also began spelling Smith at the mic by adding her own cool and jazzy vocals to the mix. As their reputation grew, Hot Club felt pressured to write new material for the genre, which they did quite ably. "We didn't know anything about music as an industry or anything like that," recalls James. "Of course, as time goes by, you realize that there's a very strong bias for artists who write their own songs - or who do contemporary songs - whether they wrote them or someone who's around now wrote them. But they have to be new songs."

For an independent label act, Hot Club had carved out a reliable commercial niche that served both Bob Wills fans and Django Reinhardt buffs. Further, the music was fresh and atmospheric and gently stretched the genre's boundaries with their new material. Yet, a conflict of temperament always existed between the two founding members.

"A lot of the problems that Whit and I had in the past all came down to the fact that I tended to be more business and detail-oriented, and Whit likes to drink a lot of coffee and just play guitar and not be bothered," she says. "There's a place for everything, but we had a lot of friction about the fact that a lot of the business stuff had come down to me, and I didn't like that because the band was a joint venture."

The break-up of Hot Club caused James to briefly entertain the idea of quitting music altogether, which shocked her friends. "I used to think that maybe I should go to law school, and people would say, ‘No, no you're, like, living your dream for all of us!' And I'm thinking, ‘Boy, do you realize that living the dream means checking into Red Roof Inns at 3:30 in the morning and having them tell you they can't find your reservation?"

Yet James admits, "Frankly, I think even if I had tried to stop, I probably wouldn't have been able to."

Once she decided to continue in music, the artist changed her surname to James - derived from her middle name Jamie. Part of the reason for the change is that she felt "Fremerman" was hard for people to say or remember. However, the concept of a clean break from the Hot Club era was definitely on her mind. "That's when I thought, ‘If that's over, and I'm going to start over, I can call myself whatever I want.'"

She then ran several possible names past a trusted friend, "My favorite was ‘Lana St. James,' but that sounded a little too much like a porn star! In the end, I decided to keep Elana because I love my first name. I thought James is just simple, and so far it's been good."

Subsequently, Smith took Hot Club bassist Jake Erwin and formed his own variation of Hot Club: Whit Smith's Hot Jazz Caravan, who had several songs on 2005's "Four Dead Batteries" soundtrack. Yet, as James explains, neither her new band nor Smith's completely ended her association with either her former guitarist or Hot Club of Cowtown.

"Fortunately, I got hired by Bob Dylan to play with him and his band for a while. So, while Whit was playing with his band, I played with Bob Dylan. The following the summer, I decided to start my own thing and began my own trio, Elana James and the Continental Two. In the interim, Whit and I continued to play together, and then Bob Dylan hired my new band to play a tour with him this past summer. I love playing with Whit, he's a totally fantastic musician, so I hired him to join my trio, and we toured as the Continental Two Plus One."

Other circumstances brought the pair back together as well. "Out of the blue, this woman who had seen us in Boston seven years ago, she's a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service and contacted us to see if the Hot Club would like to do a tour for the U.S. State Department as musical ambassadors. So, we did a three-week tour of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia as Hot Club a couple of months ago."

These days, James is much more at ease with her responsibilities as bandleader, while Smith is apparently reveling in his work-for-hire role. "I think he's able to enjoy relaxing and just not having to worry about that stuff that was always his nemesis anyway."

Naturally, working high profile tours with an artist of Dylan's stature is big news. However, James is mum about her one-on-one dealings with the famed Voice of a Generation, preferring to say, "Usually, for those types of questions I feel like if he were doing an interview, he probably wouldn't talk about me, so I'm just going to return the favor."

That said, James is positively effusive about Nelson. "He has been so incredible," she gushes. "I first saw him when I played Farm Aid with a cowboy band that I used to be in many years ago…Nelson came out and performed with Hot Club of Cowtown on the tour we did with him and Dylan in 2004. Since that time, he has been so supportive and cool. I got to play on his most recent record. I played twin fiddles on that with Johnny Gimble. (Nelson's) just so inspiring with his artistic choices over the years and what he stands for. He's got a really pure heart, and it's such an honor to have met and worked with these people in my life."

Asked what she learned from playing with Dylan's band, James responds, "One thing I learned from performing with that band - both in getting to sit in with his band when Hot Club of Cowtown toured opening for him in 2004 - I tend to be very conservative musically. I don't like to play a tune unless I've rehearsed it, I know the changes and arrangement. The kinds of things he does, he takes a lot of chances, and he improvises. He improvises his vocals. He improvises his phrasing. Because of that, it's expressive and fresh everyday. I don't do that to a great degree yet with singing yet, mostly just my playing. But, I really think that I got a lot out of being up there on stage with him and feeling him come up with new stuff all the time - riffs and feels - and just fearlessly execute it, you know?"

These experiences fueled James's desire to make a new record and led to the formation her own label - Snarf Records. Asked if she got the name from an old underground comic book, James laughs before revealing the true origin of her label's moniker. "My name growing up was ‘Snarfie.' A lot of my family still calls me that. I think there was already a Snarfie Records. So, it became Snarf."

Calling her own shots, James takes pride in writing all the original songs for her solo debut. "In 2005, after I first stopped playing in Bob Dylan's band, I took the summer - which is usually the busiest time of year - off. I sat down at home, took my dog on walks and covered the kitchen table in CDs and poetry books and old music paper and stuff and just tried to concentrate on just writing because I knew if I didn't write some songs then, the window would close."

She also hired some of the Austin area's elite players á la Dave Biller, former Cave Catt Sammy frontman Beau Sample, Joe Kerr and Gimble. "Playing with Johnny Gimble inspires me to be more creative than I would naturally be or to pull something extra out of me," says James. "Offering that kind of inspiration to an up-and-comer I think is the sign of a generous soul, and a really great player."

Most importantly, James enjoyed having the authority to make tough creative choices. "If I didn't like something, I was able to change it. That was a luxury that I never really had before. We did a lot of Hot Club of Cowtown records where I always want to go hide under the dining room table because of the fourth bar of the sixth song or something."

The result is the most polished cowboy jazz and swing release James has been associated with to date. Ultimately, the break-up of Hot Club proved to be a positive event for an artist once shy about singing on-stage. "There's a really big difference whether you're standing three feet to the right or standing in the middle of the stage," she concludes philosophically. "For me, what that means is, if you sing, you gotta sing. I am so grateful that necessity has been the mother of invention over the last year and a half - you just have to get up there and sing. It's made me more confident and forced me to grow."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •