By Dave Madeloni, Special to The Eagle
This female fiddler fronts her own band
If ever there was a musician who exemplifies that good things can come from bad, it is Elana James.
Back in 2005, her band, Hot Club of Cowtown, was on a major roll. After five albums and nine years of performing, the western-swing trio from Austin got its big break after being invited to join a prestigious and high-profile tour opening for Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. After the tour, guitarist and long-time collaborator Whit Smith surprisingly pulled the plug.
James planned to take time off to ponder a number of options — go back to school, return to horse wrangling (which she did one summer), or soldier on making music. However, her career quandary resolved quickly when she received a serendipitous phone call from Dylan’s people inviting her to tour with The Bard once again.
“I think in a lot of ways — that often only become clear after the fact — that the break up of the Hot Club of Cowtown was kind of destined, and that it has worked out to my advantage in ways I could not have ever predicted,” explained James in a recent e-mail. “If we hadn’t disbanded I would never have felt free to go on tour with Bob Dylan as a band member and I would also never have made a solo record.”
James is on the road once again, this time with her new band in support of her eponymous debut. Elana James and Her Continental Two will be appearing tomorrow night at Club Helsinki. She is riding high since Dylan gave her the boost needed to get back up on the music-making horse.
“I was definitely inspired by having been able to do those shows with him and his band, and to be a part of the energy of those nights,” said James. “It’s incredible. It also forced me out of my idiom of songs I had been involved in — almost exclusively older songs from the 1920s through the 1940s. Just steeping in the words, the forms, the arrangements of the songs we played opened my mindwider.”
The new CD is a mix of James’ originals mixed with some tasty standards that don’t stray all that far from the old-timey sound of Hot Club of Cowtown, but stretches the boundaries in subtle ways.
?Basically I just wanted to make a record that sounded good, and one that I would like to listen to,” said James. “I tried to pick songs that appealed to me. With the standards, like “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “I Don’t Mind,” and “Memories of You” — all those are tunes that the Duke Ellington band recorded in the 1930s. I was listening to the Duke Ellington box set a lot when I was working on writing songs for the record. Those happened to knock me out, so I decided to put them on the record.”
The album highlight is “All The World and I,” an Elana James composition that shows that Dylan’s songwriting magic may have rubbed off on the fiddler.
“That was one of the last songs I wrote after most of the rest of the record was finished,” added James. “I just sat down and wrote the words because there was this idea I read about in the Carter Family biography, ‘Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,’ which is such a fantastic book, about how A.P. Carter’s first song that he wrote was about someone missing their lover and how the whole world seemed to be thinking of, birds were singing of, this lost love. So I tried to write a song with that kind of an idea.”
When James returns to Great Barrington, she will be reunited with her old sidekick, Whit Smith, to play a venue that is a favorite of hers. “We always love to come to Club Helsinki. It’s an intimate place for music and has a cozy vibe. Hot Club of Cowtown was a trio of violin, guitar and bass, and so is my touring trio. I guess what I am doing is very similar, because it’s what I love, but I am open to new stuff, too, which I think will continue to develop as time goes by.
“The live show still has hoedowns, waltzes, standards and songs I wrote, but I guess the difference is that I lead it and do most of the singing, and some of the tunes are more modern. There is a whole genre that opens up for you, it seems, when you are a female singer/instrumentalist/band leader. It’s a different identity. As time goes by it seems there are not that many female fiddle players fronting their own acts, but why not? I hope it’s a trend that gains some traction … To be a role model to show people that the violin can take you in directions other than just classical music is neat — you’re never going to regret developing all the technique because that you can take with you anywhere.”