Elana James grew up in Prairie Village, Kansas and began playing Suzuki violin at age four. Her mother is a professional violinist who used to play in the Kansas City Symphony. It took James almost twenty years to decide between the violin and the fiddle, but in her mid-twenties, after much soul searching, James found her calling in American roots music and has never looked back.
In 2006, performing with the Hot Club of Cowtown, James had the honor of representing the US State Department as a Musical Ambassador throughout Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan playing everything from Texas hoedowns to American Songbook standards. Most recently, in July 2011, she was again in invited by the US State Department to perform at the Khareef Festival in Salalah, Oman, and also in the capital city of Muscat. She has been a featured guest on A Prairie Home Companion, the Grand Ol’ Opry, the Women in Jazz series at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and, with the Hot Club of Cowtown, at festivals and concerts throughout the world, including the Glastonbury Festival in England, the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, Australia’s Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival, the Rochester Jazz Festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage and the Cambridge Folk Festival.
In 2005 James became the first dedicated female instrumentalist in Bob Dylan’s touring band in more than thirty years, then toured with him in 2006 as the opening act for his United States summer tour. In addition to tours and recording with Bob Dylan, James has also recorded with Willie Nelson, Ray Price, and Merle Haggard to name only a few and has recorded nine CDs with the Hot Club of Cowtown. In 2004 she was inducted, with her Hot Club band mates, into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
James holds a B.A., cum laude, in Comparative Religion from Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York and also studied violin and viola at the Manhattan School of Music as a student of Lucie Robert and Karen Ritscher. She is also a veteran horse wrangler and world traveler. After collge James studied Dhrupad, an early form of North Indian Classical music, with Pandit Vidhur Malik in Brindavan, India. Editorial jobs in New York City in the 1990s were punctuated by several summers in Colorado where James worked as a horse packer and wrangler and played fiddle in a cowboy band. These combined interests culminated in her co-founding the Hot Club of Cowtown, the globe-trotting Western swing power trio, with guitarist Whit Smith in 1997. James is an alumnus of the Meadowmount School of Music, the New York Youth Symphony, The Columbia University Chamber Music Program, the New York String Orchestra Seminar with Alexander Schneider and the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. She lives in Austin, Texas.
A great snapshot of what was going on back in 2007 when it was written.
(Adapted from STRINGS Magazine, August 2007)
You know that your star has assumed its place in the fiddle firmament when Willie Nelson calls with a session date and you have to sigh and reply, Geez, I’m sorry, but I’m already booked with Bob Dylan. As it turns out, even Dylan has to get in line now for Elana James, whose self-titled solo debut on her own Snarf label heralds her emergence from the Hot Club of Cowtown toward a more elevated and risky autonomy.
If you’re a girl and you like to sing and play the violin, there could be a space for you with practically any band on earth, she admits. But there seem to be fewer and fewer female instrumentalists who lead their own bands, so it’s very cool that this opportunity has opened for me to do what I want.
And what exactly would that be? Judging from Elana James, the list ranges from two-beat variations on Parisian swing (Twenty-Four Hours a Day) and old-school country (Dylan’s One More Night), to updated square-dance numbers, executed with crisp vocal and instrumental harmonies (Goodbye Liza Jane), new material set to a haunting, drone-based Appalachian feel (All the World and I), plus a few jazz tunes, both classic (I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good), Memories of You) and obscure (I Don’t Mind). That’s a plateful, but James serves it with brio.
Young, yet seasoned by experience, she was born to a violinist mother near Kansas City and schooled on Suzuki from age five. James detoured briefly to Barnard en route to earning a degree in Eastern religions, and she discovered western swing through lessons with violinist Marty Laster while in New York. This led her to study the jazz violin styles of Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, and St’phane Grappelli. After that, she ventured to San Diego, where she and Whit Smith founded the Hot Club of Cowtown. Critics singled her out on their five albums and at their shows; more critically, so did Dylan, for whom the band opened during his tour with Willie Nelson. When Dylan hit the road again in the spring of ’05, she was in his band.
James ended up doing three tours with Dylan, who gave her a prominent place in the show both as an opening act and as a featured instrumentalist in his own band, which allowed her to absorb the most important lesson the experience had to offer. “One thing I realized when I was playing in Bob Dylan’s band was that what we were doing was what everyone is doing, just at a higher level,” she says. “You write some songs, you teach them to people, and then you tour around and play them for other people. He’s had unparalleled success, and he’s peerless in what he does, and yet he’s still off doing exactly the same thing as everyone else. That was a revelation to me. And it made me realize that if I started my own thing, there’s a lot of dignity in just doing it; you don’t have to worry about who you’re playing for, you don’t have to worry about how it’s received, you just have to do it.”
The end result—or, more precisely, the first fruits of that realization—can be heard on “Elana James,” Elana’s July 24, 2007 debut (Snarf). Made with some of the best of Austin’s fabled swing and country players, and featuring a guest appearance on two instrumentals by Gimble, who came to the studio on his 80th birthday, “Elana James” is a seamless blend of old and new—the former represented by a half-dozen standards, the latter by an equal number of originals that explore new variations on the western swing and string jazz she loves, as well as by “All The World And I,” a shimmering, almost other-worldly song that marks a different direction.
Elana and her trio–nowdays often comprised of former Hot Clubbers Whit Smith and Jake Erwin with occasional guests–have been touring non-stop in support of the CD and have most recently been featured at the 2007 Fuji Rock Festival in Japan and at several North American festivals in including a return engagement at the National Folk Festival, the Great Lakes Folk Festival, and at the Shetland Folk Festival and the Fiddles on Fire festival at the Sage Gateshead in the UK. As a member of the Hot Club of Cowtown, in the fall of 2006 Elana went on a tour of the Caucuses and was proud to be a member of the first American band ever to tour in Azerbaijan.
“It was fantastic to watch people doing their traditional dances to ‘Buffalo Gals,” she says, laughing. ‘I have an opportunity now to develop not just as a modern incarnation of that energy but as something deeper than that. It’s exciting to start fresh with that energy and stay open to wherever it leads.”
Discography & Session Work
Black Beauty / Elana James (2015)
Elana James / Elana James (2007)
Elana James’s Hot Fiddle: An Introduction to Fiddle Improvisation (DVD) / Elana James (2011)
Swingin’ Stampede / Hot Club of Cowtown (1998)
Tall Tales / Hot Club of Cowtown (1999)
Dev’lish Mary / Hot Club of Cowtown (2000)
Ghost Train / Hot Club of Cowtown (2002)
Continental Stomp / Hot Club of Cowtown (2003)
The Best of the Hot Club of Cowtown / Hot Club of Cowtown (2008)
Hot Jazz (Japan only) / Hot Club of Cowtown
Hot Western (Japan only) / Hot Club of Cowtown
Wishful Thinking / Hot Club of Cowtown (2009)
What Makes Bob Holler / Hot Club of Cowtown (2011)
Continental Dance Party (Live DVD) / Hot Club of Cowtown (2012)
Rendezvous in Rhythm / Hot Club of Cowtown (2013)
Midnight on the Trail / Hot Club of Cowtown (2016)
The Last of the Breed / Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard
“Tell Ol’ Bill,” North Country Soundtrack / Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series, Vol 8: Tell Tale Signs – Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 / Bob Dylan
Waiting on a Miracle / Beat Root
Diggin’ on Dylan / Denny Freeman
Without You / Peggy Wright
Don’t Leave Yet / The Hoyle Brothers
Still Fighting the War / Slaid Cleaves
Heybale: The Last Country Album / Heybale
Look Good, Feel Good / Ben Mallott
Beautiful World / Eliza Gilkyson
Hold Me When it Rains / Doc Mason
Kakistocracy / Spicewood Seven
Get a Load of This / Dave Stuckey and the Rhythm Gang
Shadow Figure / Paul Minor
Hardtop Jubilee / Kerry Polk
Internal Combustion / Rain Perry
Freezerburn / Chris Beirne
Instead the Forest Rose to Sing / Danny Schmidt
Roll Back the Rug / The Horton Brothers
Lullabies from the Axis of Evil / Various
Modern Art / Tom Russell
Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs / Tom Russell
Parkinsong, Vol. 1: 38 Songs of Hope / Various
Happy Birthday, Buck: A Texas Salute to Buck Owen / Various
American Music: The Hightone Records Story / Various