For its latest album, Rendezvous in Rhythm, the Hot Club of Cowtown has stepped back in time. Guitarist Whit Smith plays acoustic jazz echoing the work of his heroes including Allan Reuss and Django Reinhardt. The result is a sweetly swinging collection of vintage jazz with a modern twist.
True to its cattle-punching moniker, the band has cut numerous albums with a strong Western-swing flavor. Now, the ensemble picks on the other side of its identity. “At the heart of what we do, we’re paying our dues to the Hot Club of France, because they have that vitality and energy and swing – and they’re playing American jazz,” said Smith.
Hot Club of Cowtown is a simple trio, but with a full, lush sound. Smith handles guitar and vocals with Elana James on fiddle and vocals backed by bassist Jake Erwin. Formed in New York City in 1997, they moved to Austin and released their 1998 debut, Swingin’ Stampede.
“In the past, we recorded with amps, which lends itself to a ’40s sound. This album is all acoustic,” Smith says. He plays his 1928 Gibson L-5 throughout, bringing the music alive with the archtop’s warm, woody tone.
The album opens with the Russian Gypsy melody “Dark Eyes,” which transforms from a sultry violin lament to a swinging jam. Their version of “Avalon” rides a relentlessly jazzy vibe, taking cues from both Django and Art Van Damme’s versions. Yet throughout this collection of ’20s and ’30s swing classics, the band makes the songs their own.
Smith’s fretwork is truly unique. While he acknowledges his heroes, his playing is not hidebound to or restricted by any one influence or genre – a spectacular feat considering the impact these players have had on the guitar.
“I’m a big fan of early Thumbs Carllile,” he says. “I love Django Reinhardt – he knocks me out. I love Tiny Moore, Eldon Shamblin, George Van Epps. Allan Reuss is my hero – and I’m not just trying to look for the hardest name in the book.”
Reuss’ playing with Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, and others inspires Smith’s approach to rhythm. He aims to keep the harmony constantly on the go with moving chords and inversions. “What I’m striving for is that drive and speed right on top of the beat, but it’s still relaxed. Reuss has a fabulous way of doing that.”
In his solos, Smith is fascinated by double-stops. The simultaneous, two-note voicing is common in honky-tonk and rockabilly, but adds a new flavor to swing.
“I like to play double-stops and I’m trying to get adept at playing real fast riffs using them,” he explains. “When someone else is playing a single note, you get a three-way harmony with just two instruments at tempo and it really sounds like something!
“I got interested in playing sixths on adjacent strings. The catch is that the fingering’s a little unorthodox for a guitar player, but they become a system like many of the more-friendly things on a guitar.
“On the new record, I started doing more with thirds. Van Epps uses thirds and moves to the next inversion. I started doing that with double-stops, and it walks – makes your playing very full.”
Smith’s double-stop melodies are key to the band’s rich sound.
“As we’re a three-piece band, when we play a tune and I’m playing a melody note below or above and Elana is playing a single note or has an open string going next to it, now we have three- or four-note voicings moving around, it sounds like a horn section. With Jake slapping the bass and doing a two-person job there, it gets very fat very quick. It sounds good acoustic, but when you put it through a little amplifier and it starts to break up, it adds that much more sound.”
The band recorded Rendezvous in Rhythm largely live. “The three of us stood in a circle with each of us mic’ed separately but mic’ed at a distance, and there’s a lot of bleed. That mic bleed really helps when mixed to build the sound.”
While the album was cut on acoustic instruments, Smith did go back and echo some of his solos with amplification, using his well-traveled (and beat) ’37 Gibson EH-150.
“On some of the tracks, I took the solo after it had been recorded and re-played it through a line-out to my old Gibson and then had another mic on the Gibson that caught the sound again. In other words, I was trying to make the Gibson act like a stereo instrument, because I did sometimes lose some thickness on the top strings. This was kind of a clever way of putting it back in without messing with the EQ on everyone else’s instruments.”
“It wasn’t cheating,” Smith promises. “I played the solos acoustic first!”
This article originally appeared in VG September 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.