Hot Club of Cowtown
What Makes Bob Holler
Proper American Recordings
[Rating: 4 stars]
Austin is known for a lot of great acts that have achieved international acclaim, but even more that most people don’t get much exposure to. One of those is the Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio that seamlessly blends the jazz sensibilities of Reinhardt and Grappelli’s Hot Club of France with the Western swing feel of the King of Western Swing himself, Bob Wills. On What Makes Bob Holler, the Hot Club of Cowtown turns in its versions of 14 songs once covered by, and some written by, Wills with his Texas Playboys, on what will be one of the albums to beat this year in the ever-expanding Americana field.
The Hot Club of Cowtown is Whit Smith on guitar and vocals, Elana James on fiddle and vocals, and Jake Erwin on bass and background vocals, and the three are as instrumentally and vocally tight as any band out there working in any genre today. The album opens with “She’s Killing Me,” a great tune by a writer named Claude Nichols who apparently did little, if anything, else in the music business, but who at least had a Bob Wills cut. From the first note on James’ fiddle this uptempo number cooks, and Erwin absolutely slaps it to death it on a bass break.
Other numbers include Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills,” Fred Rose’s “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” and “It’s All Your Fault” by the legendary Cindy Walker, one of the earliest successful female songwriters who saw dozens of her songs recorded by Wills. Material that Wills had a hand in writing on this album includes “Osage Stomp,” “Maiden’s Prayer,” and “Stay a Little Longer” by Wills and Tommy Duncan, which has been recorded countless times by everyone from Willie Nelson to Mel Tillis. The intro of the Hot Club of Cowtown’s treatment of this song almost threatens to enter rockabilly territory, but ends up following a seamless arrangement and great harmonies that are a lot truer to Wills’ 1945 version than probably anything that followed. And any album paying tribute to Wills, cliché as it may seem, would be incomplete without a version of his hit “Faded Love,” presented here as a solid fiddle instrumental that offers nothing new, which is probably as it should be with such a classic.
The excellent three players of this band could be doing anything but have chosen to honor the greats of jazz and swing with their sound. Reportedly recorded in three days, and obviously without many overdubs in such a short span, 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. Available on Proper American Recordings, whose roster features award-winning musicians like Tim O’Brien and Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.