Hot Club of Cowtown Ride the "Ghost Train"

Ken Burke, October 2002

"We eat every meal together, we drive until two in the morning, and we spend a lot of time just staring into convenience food aisles," observes Hot Club Of Cowtown fiddle-player Elana Fremerman. "People never believe it when they see you on the Grand Ole Opry and your skirt is twinkling with gold sequins, but the reality is that you're spending a lot of time at the Exxon TigerMart."

Sound like they're complaining? Not hardly.

The Austin-based Hot Club Of Cowtown, have traveled a lot of hard miles since forming in 1997, and their respective gripes are actually the celebratory venting of a band who has transformed a hard-sell genre into a steady-paying niche market. The trio's hard-won success is reflected by near constant bookings and egged on by the release of their fourth HighTone album "Ghost Train."

"If we could've seen into the future we might've chosen a slightly different route," quips Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith. "It's not a good idea to pick a style of music that you have to explain to people. It's like 'What do you play?' Western Swing. 'What's that?' It's like Django Reinhardt and Bob Wills. Then their eyes look a dog that just heard something funny."

The members of Hot Club Of Cowtown a clever allusion to both their Western influences and the Hot Club of France where jazz innovators Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli played during the 30s traveled divergent musical paths before coming together.

Fremerman, 30, has been playing violin since she was five years old. Growing up in Prairie Village, Kansas, her parent's divorce exposed her to two distinct cultures her father's country house where she could ride horses and her professional violinist mother's home where classical music was always playing.

Speaking via cellphone while doing band business at home in Austin, Fremerman recalls, "Looking back on it as an adult, I find that was doing a reconciliation of those two exact halves of my upbringing through music."

That said, although the fiddle-phenom studied music in New York and India, these days Fremerman plays classical music only occasionally, allowing the Western half to become her dominant musical characteristic.

Eventually Fremerman's travels took her to Colorado where she worked as a horse wrangler on a high-toned dude ranch by day and played fiddle with the boss' house band Cowboy Ken and the Ranch Hand Band by night.

An internship with Harper's Magazine necessitated a move to New York. It's there she placed an ad in the Village Voice and met Whit Smith who was starting up the 11-piece Western Caravan, a Bob Willis styled aggregation which continues to play weekly at New York's Rodeo Bar.

Determined to make a living playing music, Fremerman left the Caravan and moved back to Colorado to play violin for Harold Dean and the Last Ride, a Top-40 country outfit with a few bad habits.

"That was the first time I went on tour," she laughs, "It was exciting, but everybody chain-smoked, and two or three of the guys in the band were alcoholics. What was great about that job was that I got to take all the solos and was forced to step up to the plate."

Although Whit Smith, 38, has been playing guitar since was a "real little kid," it took him quite a while to settle on a musical style. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the glib Connecticut native played in a series of soon-to-be-forgotten New York area rock bands la The Thieves of Eden and Pavlov's Dogs. After an ill-advised attempt at becoming a rock star in Japan, Smith moved to Boston for a brief stint with punk rock's The Blackjacks, before plunging into a series of small time musical projects.

Smith's landed some recording gigs with punk-poet icons Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith, but it was a day job at New York Tower Records store that changed his life.

"I was working on the jazz floor upstairs, that's where they kept the country records," recalls Smith from his motel room in Salt Lake City. "The person who ran the country section took a vacation so they put me in charge. As it turned out, Marshall Crenshaw's compilation 'Thank God It's Hillbilly Music' had just come out, and we were playing it all the time."

Intrigued, Smith picked the brain of a record company rep about Old Time music and was promptly gifted with copies of "Bob Wills' Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume One," "Speedy West Steel Guitar" and "Hank Williams' 40 Greatest." Enthralled, the drifting musician found his musical anchor in "all those country guys who made those jazzy little instrumental records" and started his first Western Swing band, the Dixie Riddle Cups, quickly followed by the aforementioned Western Caravan (the name "borrowed" from Tex Williams).

A big band with extra fiddles, steel guitars and coronet arrangements satisfied one aspect of Smith's musical visions, but didn't fulfill his long-range goal of actually earning a living playing music. Towards that end, he sought out Fremerman, who had departed Western Caravan six months earlier.

"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."

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