The San Diego Union-Tribune
April 12, 2007
By Mikel Toombs
James, music explorer, steps out on her own
When we last checked in with fiddler-singer Elana James, she was starting her solo career on a tentative note. Whit Smith, James’ partner in the old-country Hot Club of Cowtown, had suddenly dissolved the band, not long after it had undertaken a successful tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.
It didn’t take long for the onetime San Diegan — and former Elana Fremerman — to (Western) swing back into action.
Last summer, Dylan, who previously had made James the first female member of his touring band in three decades, invited her on another tour of minor-league baseball parks. Then, Nelson called on James and Johnny Gimble, the legendary Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys sideman, to play twin fiddles throughout “Last of the Breed,” Nelson’s collaboration with fellow icons Merle Haggard and Ray Price.
Now, James has self-released her first solo album, “Elana James.” The delightful CD stresses her roots in Western swing, complete with two turns by Gimble, now 80, but it also peruses the back pages of Dylan (“One More Night,” from “Nashville Skyline”) and Duke Ellington.
One name missing from “Elana James” is Smith. However, on the bill for James’ performance tomorrow night at AcousticMusic San Diego, guitarist-singer Smith pops up as a member of her new band, the Continental Two.
“Ever since we met, we have had a good chemistry playing music. And, unfortunately, that’s not enough to carry things through life,” said James, who started playing with Smith in New York City and continued through a year in San Diego.
“I have always imagined that if I was out on my own, I would want to hire Whit. Even years ago, I had that strange vision in the back of my mind, and I thought, well, that’s the kind of thing that could only happen years down the line when I have something that’s big and viable that I’ve created. But what has surprised me is how quickly that wish of mine came true.
“It actually seems to be working out well,” added James, whose trio is completed by bassist Beau Sample. “They can basically express rhythmically what you feel, because the violin is really not a rhythm instrument, let’s face it. It comes down to what is the most fun and what makes me sound the best, and the answer to both of those things is playing with Whit.”
Smith, who has been pursuing a solo career of his own, will stick with James at least through her next album, which should further dispel any notion of her as a “Western swing torchbearer.”
“I wouldn’t call what we do strictly Western swing. I’d say it’s a work in progress,” James said by phone from her home in Austin, Texas. “What I love to do is perform and play for people. And so many of those songs bring so much joy to the audience as we play them, it’s hard to step away from that. But there are many, many other kinds of music that I love, that I’m going to explore the nexttime around.”
On her current album, which includes several original compositions, James reaches back not only for the down-home “Goodbye Liza Jane,” but also Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” and two Duke Ellington standards, “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” and “I Don’t Mind.”
“I really didn’t know anything about Duke Ellington,” James admitted. “I got the Duke Ellington boxed set as a present in 2005, and I had a lot of time off, so I spent a lot of time walking my dog and listening to four of the 24 discs in this set.”