San Antonio Express News (Blog)
May 3, 2007
By Jim Beal
Elana James fiddles around
Elana James knows how to heed advice.
In an Express-News interview a year ago she said: “Johnny Gimble told me, ‘Play every chance you get and be real lucky.’ I try to live up to that. I learn every time I play. In my own life I have kept clear the ability to follow my passions.”
Since that interview, James, the fiddle, singer, songwriter and bandleader from Austin by way of New York City and Kansas City, has followed her passions, played more than a little and had some luck. James’ debut CD as a leader, “Elana James” (Snarf Records), is out and earning excellent reviews. She’s fronting her band, the Continental Two, former San Antonio denizen Beau Sample (bass, vocals) and Whit Smith (guitar, vocals), at all kinds of shows. She’s toured as part of Bob Dylan’s band. And she’s done some recording with Gimble, the legendary swing fiddler. Gimble is a guest on “Elana James.” James, along with Gimble and other hot shot pickers, recorded on the new Willie Nelson/Ray Price/Merle Haggard CD “Last of the Breed.”
“As time has gone by, I realized the ‘Elana James’ CD is a bridge between what I’ve been doing and where I’m going,” James said. “There are standards and originals. I picked up where Hot Club left off and did some kinds of things that Hot Club didn’t do.”
Oh, yeah, James was a principal in the string swing band Hot Club of Cowtown for almost a decade. The band released a string of albums on the Hightone label, worked the road like crazy and opened shows for Bob Dylan before the band’s demise. But wait, Smith was the other principal in Hot Club of Cowtown and now he and James are back together in the same band.
“I’m happy he’s with us,” James said. “The things he found untenable in the past were the day-to-day business problems.”
James is doing more of the business.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love,” she said. “When you are the point person you can keep an eye on everything. It’s a much more intensive world to play in. But I’ve been looking at it like cooking a Thanksgiving dinner. I put all my attention into one thing until it’s ready and then move on to the next thing.”
“Elana James” features an eclectic array of songs. About half are originals and fit nicely into the continental/Western swing thing. And James shows a range in the covers she chose from Dylan’s “One More Night” to the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn composition “I Don’t Mind.”
“I get pegged as a retro artist, but I don’t try to be,” she said. “It’s weird, when I write stuff it goes through this filter and maybe it would be different if I had drums and electric guitar. But, no matter what kind of CD you make, you adjust it to what goes over live. You play a breakdown or a hoedown for people in Texas or for people in Azerbaijan and people freak out.”
Rest assured James and the Continental Two know how people in Texas and people in Azerbaijan react to their music. The band recently did a State Department tour of the Caucasus.
“We were contacted through the Hot Club Web site so we (James, Sample, Smith and guitarist Luke Hill) went over as Hot Club of Cowtown. We were the first Americans to tour there. They worked us to death,” she said, laughing. “We played orphanages, schools, village meeting halls. We were there 10 days and did 25 performances. The people there were so gracious. We even played at a wedding. We sat in with the band that was playing the wedding. What was neat for us is that culture has a lot of traditional folk dances and the people danced those dances to our music. It was great to take something from America that we didn’t use as a weapon. It proved how music can be a wonderful way to bond with people.”
James and the band continue their bond with the Hot Club of Cowtown fans while bringing new fans into the fold.
“At shows, some people who saw Hot Club will write requests for the old Hot Club songs on napkins and send them up to the bandstand,” she said. “We try to honor those requests, but you can’t be a slave to the past so I try to make a lot of the music maybe a little bit more forward-looking. I’m focusing on the next album. What’s gratifying is when people come out who have never heard of Hot Club. But, whatever we do, we want people to leave happier than when they came in.”
Let that be James’ advice to live by.
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