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The Hot Club of Cowtown

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Hot Club of Cowtown
Hot Club of Cowtown performing live at Dingwalls in London, UK. Photo by JJ Johnson
Hot Club of Cowtown performing live at Dingwalls in London, UK. Photo by JJ Johnson
Background information
OriginUnited States
Years active1997–present
LabelsHighTone, Proper, Concord Rounder, The Last Music Company (London, UK), Gold Strike Records
Past members
  • TC Cyran
  • Billy Horton
  • Jake Erwin

The Hot Club of Cowtown is an American Western swing[1] trio that formed in 1997.


The band's name comes from two sources: "Hot Club" from the hot jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli's Quintette du Hot Club de France, and "Cowtown" from the western influence of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and other early Western swing combos, as well as the band's love of fiddle tunes, hoedowns, and songs of the American west.

Whit Smith (from Cape Cod, Massachusetts) and Elana James (from Prairie Village, Kansas) met through an ad in the classified music section of The Village Voice in 1994. They played together in New York City before moving to San Diego in 1997, where they spent a year playing for tips and building up their repertoire. In 1998 they moved to Austin, Texas and two years later added Jake Erwin (from Tulsa, Oklahoma) on bass.

The band split briefly in 2005, though they reunited for occasional shows in 2005–07, including the Fuji Rock Festival[3] and a tour of Australia as Elana James & The Hot Club of Cowtown, in 2007. Whit Smith performed as Whit Smith's Hot Jazz Caravan, based in Austin, Texas. Elana toured with Bob Dylan in 2005 and began performing with her own trio later in 2005. Smith and James resumed playing together full-time in 2006 and by early 2008 the Hot Club of Cowtown had officially re-formed.

In the summer of 2020, upright bass player Jake Erwin retired from the band and was replaced by Zack Sapunor, who was with the band until mid-2023. Currently the Hot Club of Cowtown performs as a quartet or trio with guest artists regularly joining in, including Beau Sample on upright bass and Dave Biller and Matt Munisteri on guitar or steel.

The Hot Club of Cowtown celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2022.


The Hot Club's first album, 1998's Swingin' Stampede is a collection of standards, fiddle tunes, and classic Western swing songs, including two written by Bob Wills. Their 1999 follow-up album, Tall Tales, includes original songs by Smith and James, including Darling You And I Are Through by James, and Emily and When I Lost You by Smith, as well as more Western Swing standards by Bob Wills, Pee Wee King, and others. Later albums continued to mix classic Western Swing and hot jazz, with originals in the same style; including the studio albums, Ghost Train (2002) and Wishful Thinking (2009). Their 2011 album What Makes Bob Holler was a tribute to Bob Wills and includes obscure B-sides with some of Wills' most popular work, including Big Balls in Cowtown, Stay a Little Longer, Osage Stomp and The Devil Ain't Lazy. What Makes Bob Holler has since been re-released by the Last Music Company worldwide in all formats, including vinyl.

The Hot Club of Cowtown released a live DVD, Continental Dance Party, in 2012 which was filmed at the Continental Club Gallery in Austin, Texas.

In 2016, the Hot Club of Cowtown released its ninth studio album, Midnight on the Trail (Gold Strike Records), a vintage mix of 12 Western swing songs and cowboy ballads "hand-collected to reflect the spirit and joy of the American West," including traditional songs as well as works by Cindy Walker, Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Johnny Mercer, and more. The band's previous release, Rendezvous in Rhythm (Gold Strike Records, 2013) was a collection of hot jazz standards and gypsy instrumentals played acoustically in the style of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli (The Quintette of the Hot Club of France). "Often people at our shows, old-timers from West Texas, will come up and tell us that what they really like is those traditional, Romanian-sounding songs. This was the antidote to our Western swing CD. Our band is better known as a western swing act, and even though Western swing includes all kinds of jazzy bluesy idioms from back in the day, the western and country part of it are so prominent that it tends to overshadow the purely jazzy European side," said James.[4]

In 2017, in recognition of the band's 20th anniversary, the Hot Club of Cowtown re-released their first set of recordings, Western Clambake, a cassette which had previously been released in 1997 when the band played for tips in and around San Diego, California at farmers' markets, local cafes and coffee houses, and Balboa Park. Crossing the Great Divide soon followed, an EP of songs drawn from the first two albums by The Band (Music from Big Pink and The Band) and re-arranged Hot Club of Cowtown-style

The Hot Club of Cowtown's 11th studio album, Wild Kingdom, was released on September 27, 2019--a fourteen-track collection of standards and original songs by Whit Smith and Elana James about star-crossed romances ("Near Mrs.") cavemen, Mongolian stallions, vintage candy, rodeo pick up men, and the real meaning of "Last Call." Wild Kingdom was pulled during the pandemic in 2020 and re-released worldwide in 2022 on the London, UK label The Last Music Company. The band also released "The Finest Hour," in early 2020, a collection of songs from the American pop chart at the end of WWII in 1945. The Finest Hour was recorded in front of a live audience at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.

Awards and live performances[edit]

Whit Smith and Elana James performing with the band in Kodiak, Alaska in September 2013.

The Hot Club of Cowtown continues to tour year-round, primarily in the US and the UK.

Their live show has been described as "an arsenal full of technique and joy" by Jon Caramanica in the New York Times

Frank De Blase, in the Rochester City Paper writes that the band "swung light and tight like tumbleweeds made of velvet."

The Sunday Times (London) describes the Hot Club of Cowtown as “The world's most engaging Western Swing band – their shows are all about energy and joie de vivre – the devil-may-care style that combined the rigour of Jazz with the down-home sentiment of Country and earthiness of the Blues – it is as a live act that they have made their greatest impact.”


In 2013, the Hot Club of Cowtown was nominated for the first-ever Ameripolitan Music Awards, held in Austin, Texas in 2014, in the Western Swing Group of the Year category. The band was nominated again for the Ameripolitan Music Awards the following year (2015) and won Western Swing Group of the Year, as Elana James won Western Swing Female of the Year. Elana James, Whit Smith and Jake Erwin are each members of the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame, and, more recently, Elana James and Zack Sapunor were inducted into the Sacramento Western Swing Hall of Fame in Sacramento, California.

In January and February 2011, they toured with Roxy Music as the opening act on Roxy's UK leg of their For Your Pleasure tour.


Career highlights include the Women in Jazz series (part of Jazz at Lincoln Center), the Cambridge Folk Festival (UK), the Glastonbury Festival (UK),[5] the Fuji Rock Festival (Japan), Byron Bay Blues & Roots Festival (AU), the National Folk Festival (US and AU), the Stagecoach Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival (CA), Waiting for Waits Festival (SP), the grand opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, The Barns at Wolf Trap, the Rochester Jazz Festival, the Strawberry Festival, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, and traveling as US State Department Musical Ambassadors to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Algeria, the Republic of Georgia, and the Sultanate of Oman. The Hot Club of Cowtown has toured with Bob Dylan,[5] Willie Nelson,[5] the Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Mavericks, Dan Hicks, Gatemouth Brown, The Avett Brothers, Bryan Ferry, Tyler Hilton and others.

The band has been featured on television, appearing on several episodes of Larry's Country Diner, as well as on Later With Jools Holland and the Jools Holland New Year's Eve Hootenanny (UK), $40 a Day with Rachael Ray (US), The Grand Ole Opry (US), the BBC Live From Glastonbury broadcast (UK), Good Morning Azerbaijan, the Texas Music Cafe, and others. Film credits for songs include indie films Four Dead Batteries and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. United States radio appearances include Mountain Stage, eTown, World Cafe, A Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Sirius Satellite, XM Satellite, and many more.


  • 1998: Swingin' Stampede HighTone
  • 1999: Tall Tales HighTone
  • 2000: Dev'lish Mary HighTone
  • 2002: Hot Jazz (Japan only) Buffalo
  • 2002: Hot Western (Japan only) Buffalo
  • 2002: Ghost Train HighTone
  • 2003: Continental Stomp [live] HighTone
  • 2005: Four Dead Batteries (original soundtrack) HighTone
  • 2008: The Best of The Hot Club of Cowtown Shout!Factory
  • 2009: Wishful Thinking Gold Strike
  • 2011: What Makes Bob Holler Proper American -- Vinyl reissued Oct 2021 by The Last Music Company (London, UK)
  • 2012: Continental Dance Party (DVD) Gold Strike
  • 2013: Rendezvous in Rhythm Gold Strike
  • 2016: Midnight on the Trail Gold Strike
  • 2017: Western Clambake (reissue of the band's first recordings from 1997) Gold Strike
  • 2019: Crossing The Great Divide (tribute to The Band) Gold Strike
  • 2019: Wild Kingdom Gold Strike -- Reissued worldwide April 2022 by The Last Music Company (London, UK)
  • 2020: The Finest Hour -- Songs That Ended WWII
  • 2023: Live From Belfast -- Live record, performed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, November 2016.

Individual media by band members[edit]

  • 2008: Chordination – Instructional DVD by Whit Smith
  • 2011: Chordination, Vol. 2 – Instructional DVD by Whit Smith
  • 2012: Hell Among The Hedgehogs (Old Cow Records) – CD/EP (32:00) featuring the twin guitars of Whit Smith and Matt Munisteri
  • 2014: On The Nature Of Strings (Flying Fortress Records) – Solo CD by Whit Smith
  • 2016: Chordination, Vol. 3 – Instructional DVD by Whit Smith
  • 2007: Elana James (Snarf Records) – Solo CD by Elana James
  • 2011: Elana James's Hot Fiddle: Introduction to Violin Improvisation – Instructional DVD by Elana James
  • 2015: Black Beauty (Snarf Records) – Solo CD by Elana James


  1. ^ a b c d e Collar, Matt. "Artist Biography by Matt Collar". AllMusic. Retrieved January 19, 2022.
  2. ^ Smith, Jim. The Hot Club of Cowtown at AllMusic. Retrieved 18 September 2017.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-01-07. Retrieved 2012-07-28.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ Matthew Dicker (2013-04-08). "Musical Gypsies: Well-traveled Hot Club of Cowtown swings into Jammin' Java". Washington Times. Retrieved 2016-03-08.
  5. ^ a b c "Hot Club of Cowtown". Archived from the original on 2013-04-23. Retrieved 2013-02-08.

External links[edit]