By Timothy Finn
Ex-Hot Club of Cowtown member gains experience going solo
KANSAS CITY, Kan. _ The last time she performed in her hometown, she was Elana Fremerman, fiddler in Hot Club of Cowtown.
That was September 2004. Hot Club opened for Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson out at Community America Ballpark, and they seemed to impress the large crowd that showed up early to grab a good spot in centerfield.
Fremerman had already impressed someone else: As he had during previous shows, Dylan invited her to join him on stage as a guest fiddler for several songs. Life was very good, or so it appeared. But it wasn’t.
More than two years later everything is very different. Hot Club, a Texas-swing trio, broke up not long after that show. And Fremerman now goes by Elana James (her middle name is Jamie). The band ended for reasons she couldn’t control. She changed her name, though, for a practical reason: Because it’s easier to say and spell, and it looks less imposing in print, especially when it’s the title of your first solo album.
Why the break-up? Whit Smith, Hot Club’s co-founder and ace guitarist, had “maxed out,” said James, a native of Prairie Village, Kan.
“When the band ended, it wasn’t my decision,” she said. “Whit had hit a wall, I guess. He just decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. He’d been ambivalent for about a year and a half and had to be talked into continuing. I was still freakishly committed to it. But we were a partnership, so I couldn’t keep the name.”
For eight years, Hot Club had been a busy, successful band: It released five albums, and developed the kind of reputation that gets a band invited to places like Azerbaijan and gigs like opening for Willie & Bob.
So when Hot Club broke up, James was a renowned fiddler (and one of the youngest-ever inductees into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame) but one without a band. The situation thrilled and scared her: “I had no idea what I was going to do,” she said. Before she could make a move, though, Dylan came back into her life.
“I planned on taking some time off and examining all my options,” she said. “But before I could get anything going, I got a call from Dylan’s group. He was shuffling up his band after (guitarist) Larry Campbell left. So I went out and toured with them that following spring, March and April.
“It must have looked like I left Hot Club of Cowtown to join Bob Dylan’s band. That totally did not happen. It just came at the right time.”
After she left the Dylan tour, James took that time off and pondered her options. She decided pretty quickly that if she was going to make a record on her own, it was “now or never.” So she wrote some songs, selected a few covers, put together another trio and started recording. Her intent was to forge an identity based on her old band and her new self.
“A big part of the pleasure we all got from Hot Club was we were doing music that moved us or we loved,” James said. “It could easily have happened that Dylan’s music really opened my mind to exploring another idiom. Instead, I went back to what I’m familiar with and most comfortable with.”
The songs on “Elana James” are a mix of originals, like the lovely “All the World and I”; standards, like “Goodbye Liza Jane” and “Silver Bells”; and covers, like Duke Ellington’s “I Don’t Mind.” Hot Club fans ought to navigate with ease the transition from their music to hers.
She officially released “Elana James” Tuesday, which is also the day she and her band began a tour with singer/songwriter Bruce Robison. She calls her band the Continental Two. Her bassist is Beau Sample. Her guitarist: former Cowtown sidekick Whit Smith, whose own foray into the solo life didn’t work out.
“Some people think it’s weird,” she said, “but we have a long history and he’s an amazing guitarist and funny and fun to be around. I mean, life’s too short. Who cares?”
James, too, has discovered the big differences between being part of a band and being a solo artist. To ease the heavy work load, she has hired a publicist and a radio promoter and is in the process of looking for a manager. The responsibilities may be more daunting than they were in Hot Club, she said, but the rewards are more satisfying.
“I would never have reached this point if I hadn’t gone what we did with the end of Hot Club of Cowtown,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily ask to be in this situation, but I do value it.
“Whit has told me that he has more respect for me, and I have more respect for myself, too, for having gone through this and created something out of nothing, for pulling a rabbit out of the hat. That’s really great. But honestly what’s also great is to share it with other people.
“It’s one thing to be your own act, but if you’re not playing with people you’re psyched to be with who are fun and amazing players, then why bother? I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but I’m very happy with the way things are shaping up.”
They are shaping up so well that in January, James and her band were invited by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to play at her inauguration. This time, life is as good as it appears to be.