Sydney Morning News
March 13, 2008
By Barry Divola
Elana James: Work in a flat-pack furniture store or be the first woman to join Bob Dylan’s band in 30 years? Choices, choices …
Elana James’s mid-life crisis arrived a little early four years ago. Her band, jazz-western swing group Hot Club Of Cowtown, came home to Texas from a high-profile support slot on a tour by Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, then abruptly imploded.
The thirtysomething violinist, who learnt the instrument via the Suzuki method at the age of five, took stock and considered her options: working in Ikea, a store she loves; going to law school; or returning to horse wrangling, which she did to support herself in her pre-musician days.
Instead, she got a call from Dylan’s people and was asked to become the first female instrumentalist in 30 years to be included in his band. There was a small problem.
“I didn’t really know much about his music and I wasn’t familiar with it,” she says.
“Seriously. I grew up being obsessed with things like Mozart’s Symphony No. 25. I didn’t grow up listening to Bob Dylan. Before I went on tour I bought tonnes and tonnes of his CDs. I listened and song after song after song was amazing.”
She still recalls the nightly thrill of playing with Dylan, who would often improvise to keep things fresh, and the feeling she got from the audiences’ roar and the energy radiating towards the stage. IKEA, law school and horse wrangling were put on the backburner and the gigs kept coming. In 2006, James and fellow Hot Club Of Cowtown member Whit Smith were asked by the US State Department to put together a group and tour Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia as part of a cultural exchange.
“We played these very, very remote regions that were way off the beaten path,” she says. “At first the people would all be seated. Then we asked our translator if she could announce that it was OK with us if people got up and danced. It was incredible watching kids doing their traditional village dances to these American fiddle tunes.”
James’s roll continued last year with the release of her debut self-titled solo album of swing, country and jazz. It was the culmination of a career that got its first spark as a child, when she used to watch her mother play violin in the Kansas City Symphony.
“Instead of seeing my mother get up in the morning and put on a suit to go to work, I saw her get ready at 6.30 in the evening and she’d put on black velvet and Chanel No. 5. If I wanted to rebel in my family I’d have to be working on Wall Street.”
James is on the phone from Florida, where she is holidaying with her mother. The previous evening, just for fun, James sat in with a jazz band that was playing at the club attached to their hotel. The 86-year-old saxophonist in the group was so impressed he asked her to return on this night.
“I had to say no,” she says. “Tonight I’m ordering pizza and watching Law & Order with my mum. It’s going to be a wild night.”