By Dave Hoekstra, Staff Reporter
No skirt-twirling allowed
With new album, Dylan gig, Elana James reinvents her vibe
Within a span of 18 months, violin player Elana James lost her band, Hot Club of Cowtown; she was recruited by legendary Nashville producer Fred Foster to play twin fiddles with Johnny Gimble on a Willie Nelson record; and before she could commit, Bob Dylan asked her to join his band.Holy Cowtown!
All that serendipity comes together on James’ self-titled debut record, out Tuesday on Snarf Records. She’s in the Chicago area the next day for a FitzGerald’s gig, playing swing, country and string jazz.
“Elana James” is a departure from the skirt-twirling, retro-chestnut swing she was known for in Hot Club of Cowtown. She covers Eubie Blake’s jazzy “Memories of You,” serves up honest country in Dylan’s “One More Night” and touches on jump blues in her original composition “Twenty-Four Hours a Day.” Guests include the New Orleans Jazz Vipers’ Bruce Brackman, who lends traditional jazz clarinet. James’ vocals are warm and immediate.
And again, James’ timing couldn’t be better. These are good times for female vocalists, ranging from the Dixie Chicks to “Snorah” Jones and the The Bird and the Bee (a buzz-worthy project with sweet vocals by Inara George, daughter of the late Lowell George of Little Feat). James’ producer, Mark Hallman, has worked with Ani DiFranco, Eliza Gilkyson and co-produced “Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King” with Carole King.
“People like females who sing and play instruments,” James said from her home in Austin, Texas. “The older you get, the less common that becomes. A female bandleader who plays an instrument other than a guitar is even rarer. There’s restrictions to arcane, melodic music that is kind of simple, which is something I like a lot. If that’s a wave I can catch, I would be happy.”
“Elana James” is such an engaging record because it captures an artist ignited by the sparks of evolution. James explained, “When Hot Club dissolved, it was unclear to me what my role was in how much that band succeeded. But then things I did as an individual gave me confidence to step out and do my own thing, whether it was being invited to go out on the Bob Dylan tour or being invited to play ‘Prairie Home Companion’ several times as myself.”
But it was a gut check for James to reflect on her life with Hot Club.
“There was despair of having worked eight years with my band,” she continued. “All the stuff we went through, traveling all over the world, the records, standing in the convenience store at 2:30 in the morning and staring at the Ho-Hos. That’s what life was like for so many years until things started to turn your way. It was excruciating to imagine it had all been for nothing. But I was pleased to find that in a lot of ways that message carried on into my own thing.”
The band dissolved in 2005 when James and guitarist Whit Smith decided to go separate ways. Ironically, James has now hired Smith to appear in her road band. Beau Sample is on stand-up bass, and he also plays on the record.
The Hot Club’s last big stand was in the opening slot for Dylan and Willie Nelson’s 2004 tour of minor league ballparks. James was asked to join Dylan’s road band for his spring 2005 tour with Merle Haggard and last summer’s tour with Jimmie Vaughn. Dylan put James up front, and often her violin parts accented his material in the gypsy spirit of “Desire”-era violinist Scarlet Rivera.
“He gave me such a prominent space on stage, and some people might have thought that was bizarre,” James said. “It was such incredible fun. I just wish I could have been better prepared. But that taught me that you don’t have to know every single thing when you get on stage. It’s OK to try stuff out of left field that you’ve never done before.
“After I joined the band, I bought a couple hundred dollars’ worth of Bob Dylan CDs. And on the [Hot Club of Cowtown] tour, I got to sit in every day. But it was hard to understand what was going on on stage because it was so deafeningly loud, like ‘Watching the River Flow.’ One CD I really liked was ‘Nashville Skyline.’ We never played ‘One More Night’ when I was on tour with him, but I loved that song. And I wasn’t trapped in the ‘boot-skating, skirt-twirling, retro-chestnut hell’ of what people often perceived the Hot Club of Cowtown. It drove us out of our minds. If I saw one more review that mentioned chestnuts and skirt-twirling, I was going to gag. So I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this Bob Dylan song.’ ”
Also in 2005, Foster asked James to play on “You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker,” Willie Nelson’s tribute to Nashville songwriter Walker.
Foster met James when she appeared with former Texas Playboy fiddle player Johnny Gimble at a live Walker tribute in Austin. (Gimble, 80, has two guest slots on “Elana James” including a sizzling electric mandolin part on “Goodbye Liza Jane.”) Foster did recruit James to play on “Last of the Breed,” the Nelson-Merle Haggard-Ray Price collaboration due March 20 on Lost Highway. “Fred’s been like an under-the-radar advisor the last several months,” she said. “He’s been giving me different ideas about things.”
James is from Kansas City, Mo., and relocated to Austin with Hot Club of Cowtown. “The only thing I knew about Austin was that Johnny Gimble lived here,” she said. “The fact I would be living near his zip code was enough.”
Hard-core Cowtown fans might remember James as Elana Fremerman. She didn’t get married.
“Fremerman?,” she asked. “Let’s face it. Life is hard enough, why put yourself through more difficulty. Jamie is my middle name, so I changed it to James. It’s been hard to say on stage, ‘I’m Elana James,’ like that’s total b.s. — I’m not Elana James. But I think in time I could become Elana James. The first step was saying it to people.”
The second step is listening to the music.