If Hot Club of Cowtown had wanted to achieve Top 40 success, this is not the path it would have chosen to go.
With a sound described as a mash-up of Western swing and hot jazz, the band manages to fuse two seemingly unlikely genres. But talk to singer and fiddler Elana James and she’ll convince you otherwise.
“Hot jazz and Western swing are very clear cousins,” she says of the two musical movements occurring concurrently on different sides of the Atlantic. “They share common underpinnings of swinging rhythm and similar instrumentation.”
So while the trio’s sound is contemporary, its goal is to stay true to the original elements of both genres using the fiddle, guitar and upright bass. When the band got together 21 years ago, James was surprised to see that its audience was older, since the band members were in their 20s. But as the years have passed, trends have come and gone, and the swing revival of the late ’90s brought scores of new fans to their shows.
“We got a cult following because of the obscure way our music is described,” she says. “You had to open your mind and your heart to appreciate it.”
Hot Club of Cowtown has toured with Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry and the Avett Brothers.
Even the U.S. government gets it and sent the band out as U.S. State Department musical ambassadors to Algeria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, among others. James says the group particularly enjoys folk festivals because it sees them as living, curated musical wells, proving the vibrancy and viability of what’s important about American music.
“If you stop by to see us at the Folk Festival, you’ll feel like you’re in a 1937 roadhouse in Oklahoma,” she says. “Or a 1940s French nightclub, depending on the song.”
Hot Club of Cowtown performs on Friday, Oct. 13, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., on the WestRock Foundation Stage. The band performs on Saturday, Oct. 14, from noon to 12:45, on the Community Foundation Stage and from 7:15 to 8:15 on the Altria Stage. It performs again on Sunday, Oct. 15, from 4 to 4:45, on the Altria Stage.