Hot Jazz Meets Cowboy Country at Boyne City Event

Hot Club of Cowtown | January 13
Freshwater Gallery, Boyne City

For Elena James, the choice came down to her heart or her training. Ultimately, she decided she wanted to take the road less traveled, which has led to travel across the world. She’s toured the world but has eschewed her background as a classical musician in favor of something more earthy. “I played in orchestras. I stuck with classical for a long time. After college I let myself go toward what I felt—I didn’t want to be a section violist in a European classical orchestra,” she says in an interview from her home in Austin, Texas.

What she felt was a connection to country, swing and folk forms. “I was always interested in folk,” James says. She played in coffeehouses and the like in her native Kansas City and was also drawn to music from other cultures, such as Asia. She added to that background by playing cowboy songs while in a band at a ranch during summers.

Put it all together, and perhaps it’s only logical that she formed a band combining most all those influences. Hot Club of Cowtown had its genesis in a duo with guitarist Whit Smith in 1996. The addition of bassist Billy Horton made the group a trio, which it has been ever since; today the bass chair is held by Jake Erwin, who joined for the band’s 2002 recording Ghost Train.

Over the course of its 20-year existence, the group has been featured on TV shows like Larry’s Country Diner, Later with Jools Holland, the Grand Ole Opry and $40 a Day with Rachael Ray; toured with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Roxy Music; and released 10 albums. “It’s taken us 20 years to be an overnight sensation,” James says with a laugh.

While they may not have any hits —“Whatever that means today,” James says—they enjoy melding the styles pioneered by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys on the one hand, and Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France on the other. “You don’t see three people making the music we do very often. It’s a big sound, very Texas-y. It’s part of the spirit of America, hot jazz and hoedown. You’re not going to fall asleep.

“We do love music and playing it with each other.”


Western swing/hot club jazz artists Hot Club of Cowtown

How they got their start

Violinist and violist Elena James, on the run from classical music, found a kindred spirit in guitarist Whit Smith. With the addition of bass they became a power trio, though in the spirit of cowboys rather than Cream.


Traditional folk, bluegrass and Western swing, fused with the sweet swing stylings of hot jazz

Influences and Inspirations

Bob Wills, Asleep at the Wheel, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Hot Club of France

But wait, there’s more

James and/or the band have performed with or toured with both Bob Dylan and Bryan Ferry and his band, Roxy Music. “Bryan is a fan. When we toured with Roxy we did some stadiums in the U.K. That was fun. That’s the nature of the business. We’ll play a coffee shop and then an arena. It’s not that unusual.”


What Makes Bob Holler is an excellent recording by three skilled musicians who can seemingly just tune up and play, something that’s becoming increasingly rare these days. If you’re a fan of Wills, Reinhardt or Asleep at the Wheel, this album should make you holler, too.” –

“There’s the virtuosic fiddling of Ms. James—she’s played with Bob Dylan’s band—and the aerobic workout that is Mr. Erwin’s bass playing. And there’s the band’s elemental warmth.” – New York Times


Freshwater Gallery, Boyne City

Date & Time

January 13, 8 p.m.

Ticket information

Tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door if available—gallery owners Tony Williams and Robin Lee Berry say it’s almost a sure sell-out. Call 231-582-2588. 

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