Jim Beal Jr.
Elana James has a little explaining to do. What happened to Elana Fremerman? What happened to the Hot Club of Cowtown?
“I decided it was too much trouble spelling my name,” said the fiddler, singer, songwriter and leader of the new band Elana James & the Continental Two. “James is my dad’s dad’s name, so I was happy to change it to Elana James and a burden was lifted.
“I went to a record store and flipped through the racks to see who I’d be close to and realized Etta James changed her name. I made the right choice.”
James will lead the Continental Two, former San Antonio denizen Beau Sample (bass, vocals) and Luke Hill (guitar, vocals), into Casbeers, 1719 Blanco Road, Saturday. Downbeat is 9:30 p.m. James worked with guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith in the continental-meets-Western swing band Hot Club of Cowtown for almost a decade. That ended last year.
“That band was him and me for nine years. Whit wanted to start his own thing over a year ago,” she said. “I like to do what I was doing. Thank God I found some fantastic people. It’s my band and my name but it’s about making music collectively. Everybody sings and everybody plays well.”
James didn’t have time to mope around about Hot Club breaking up. The end came while the band was on the road opening for Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. James was asked to be a guest on Dylan’s shows during that tour. She followed that with another tour as a full-fledged member of the Dylan band.
“Bob Dylan did a combination of new songs and old songs. The only thing they had in common was I hadn’t heard them before,” she said, laughing.
James hails from Kansas City. She started playing Suzuki Method violin at age 5. Though her parents weren’t strict about the music she played, James was strict with herself when it came to sticking with the classical repertoire.
“It was ‘Don’t take off these blinders.’ I had the attitude that I couldn’t stray, but I always was attracted to other kinds of music, and then all roads led to … other music that was more suited to my talent and temperament,” she said.
Indeed, with Hot Club, James made high-quality, swinging, fun music. The band, which released a string of CDs on the Hightone label, was adept at doing cool arrangements of classic songs as well as adding to the book with original compositions. With the Continental Two, James is doing something similar.
“One thing I learned from Hot Club is something can be taken away from you at the drop of a hat and all the capital you’ve built up goes with it,” she said. “I decided I wanted to create a format that couldn’t be taken away and, with my name on it, it can’t be taken away.
“I hope that as my own name gets out there Beau and Luke get their names out there too. We do a lot of the same tunes I did with Hot Club, ones I wrote or ones I like to do. We also do songs that Beau and Luke sing, new songs I’ve written and songs Beau and Luke have brought in. It’s not quite as Western as Hot Club but it’s as sophisticated and exciting.”
James, the youngest inductee into the Western Swing Hall of Fame, recently finished recording with Nelson in an all-star studio crew that included swing fiddle legend Johnny Gimble. She also has recorded with Dave Stuckey, Kerry Polk and Tom Russell.
“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 passion,” she said.
And James will keep clear the ability to change a name now and then.
“My mom was visiting and we were talking about band names,” James added. “She likes the name Elana James’ Hot Hot Trio, so the name might change.”
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