By Eric Althoff
Whit Smith just knew he needed to form a roots band. While living in New York, he became keenly aware of the so-called “hillbilly music” of Jimmy Bryant, Chet Atkins and Merle Travis—so much so that the guitarist right away changed his aim from rock to folk.
“I heard a compilation put together by Marshall Crenshaw called ‘Thank God for Hillbilly Music.’ I’d never heard anything like it,” Smith said. “It had a virtuosic quality to it [even though] it was such a down-home, simple form.”
Seeking like-minded musicians, Smith soon met fiddler/vocalist Elana James, whose interest in the sounds of western and swing jibed with what he was looking to do himself. “We would play everything from western Johnny Gimble fiddle music to Django Reinhardt, which was jazz of that verve and energy—very focused on guitar and violin,” Smith said.
After a stint in California, Smith and James moved to Austin, where in the late-’90s they hooked up with bassist Jake Erwin to form Hot Club of Cowtown, specifically to play “hot jazz” and western swing. Only a few months later, they had a record deal with Hightone, an agent and started touring.
Over 20 years later, they are still at it. The band is about to hit the road to promote its new release, “Wild Kingdom,” which releases Sept. 20. Hot Club of Cowtown will play at the DC Winery Sept. 5 as part of that tour.
The cover of “Wild Kingdom” features the trio surrounded by a plethora of zoo animals including a horse, zebra, rabbit, raccoon and tiger. Smith said he was inspired by the busy cover art of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” from the Beatles and “Their Satanic Majesties Request” by the Rolling Stones.
“I had that [Stones] record when I was a kid, and you could turn it left and right and the image would change,” Smith said of the 1967 holographic cover art of Mick Jagger and company. “Those images were burned into imagination since youth, so I thought, why not, it’d be fun.”
Bandmate James was a fan of animals—hence the name—but Smith pushed for something a bit more fantastical—something that “conjures up the imagination.”
“It’s part of what people do when they want to be amused: They look at the album art as they listen to the songs,” Smith said.
“Wild Kingdom” continues the swingin’ style of Hot Club of Cowtown’s earlier records, with new high-energy songs “Tall Tall Ship” and “My Candy” immediately indicating that a good time will be had by all.
Smith says he is especially proud of “Caveman,” a tongue-in-cheek composition about a stone age artisan narrating the story of etching his works on rock but told as if the cave-dwelling Piccaso were speaking in a modern, hipster patois.
“The idea of a cave painter becoming a celebrity…using western swing music as its medium I thought was pretty far out,” Smith said of the tune, on which he also sings. “[It] was maybe my favorite [song] that I contributed.”
Like nearly everyone else in the music industry, Hot Club of Cowtown cannot rely on record sales alone and must, of necessity, keep on the road to get their music in front of new audiences while also earning a living. Over two decades, Smith and his bandmates have kept up a busy life on the road.
“It would be nice to tour a little less but maybe we’d get lax in our game,” he said. “Maybe it’s kept us in shape.”
Smith said that fans who come to see the trio perform at the DC Winery Sept. 5 can expect an evening of high-energy musicianship.
“I don’t mean we’re loud and fast, I just mean you can pick up on that charisma,” he said. “When we’ve all gone off and played with other bands, we might really enjoy the company, but we’ve become used to this energy that the three of us make together…where the energy is greater than the sum of its parts.
“So that rubs off right away. The audience always picks up on that.”
At the time of this interview, Smith’s bandmates James and Erwin were off, respectively, on a backcountry hiking trip in Montana and a journey to the woods of Minnesota in search of Bigfoot. At home in Austin, Smith said he was working on new material and arrangements of 1940s songs for his band’s fall tour with Davina and the Vagabonds.
“I’m the urban one,” he said with a laugh when relating the off-the-map whereabouts of his bandmates.
When the trio reunites, they will have a very short amount of time to rehearse the songs off of “Wild Kingdom” before they will hit the road, beginning at the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, Rhode Island, and then moving on to gigs in New York and Washington.
“Usually a day is enough to get us sort of going again,” Smith said. “We’ll have the day before to kind of knock off the rust a little bit, and then we’ll be ready to go.”
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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