From the heart

From the heart

The Hot Club of Cowtown's Jewish roots

Whit Smith, Elana James, and Jake Erwin are the Hot Club of Cowtown.

There is some music that comes from a violin – music that is sad or yearning or fierce or mournful or forgiving or pleading or frantic – that bypasses the brain and goes right to the heart and soul.

Sometimes that music can cross cultural divisions, defy expectations, and mock stereotypes.

That might be why Elana James, a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of Kansas City, is one of the founders of Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio that will bring western swing, jazz, gypsy, and eastern European music to Mexicali Live in Teaneck on March 14 at 8 p.m., as it has brought it to clubs and theaters around the world for nearly 20 years now.

“I’ve played violin since I was 4,” Ms. James said. “I’ve always felt that it is a very Jewish thing.

“I went to the Hebrew Academy in Kansas City” – perhaps this is pedantic, but she is talking about the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas – “from kindergarten until sixth grade. Music is an incredibly central part of Jewish life, and I always felt that being a violin player in that environment was a precious identity.

“Gypsy music, eastern European fiddle music happens to be my favorite kind of music, and it seems to me that being a professional fiddle player is the 21st-century version of an ancient Jewish trade.”

There is a big Jewish community in the Kansas City area, Ms. James said, and much of it is multigenerational. “My sister moved back there, and her kids go to the Hebrew Academy.” It’s a two-state region; Kansas City’s cultural institutions are on the Missouri side, but many Jews live in the suburbs in Kansas. That includes Prairie Village, where Ms. James grew up, as well as Overland Park, where she went to school.

She came by her musicianship naturally. “My mom, Susan Kemmer, is a violinist,” she said; her mother’s name is now Susan Hammerton. “When I was a little person, I heard her playing around the house, and I’d see her get all dressed up in black velvet and put on her Chanel Number Five to play in the Kansas City Symphony and then with her own trio. My dad is more like a ham – he plays a little piano, but the strict musical stuff comes from my mother’s part of the family.”

Ms. James grew up playing classical music. She loved it, but she always wanted to play music in a more social way. She longed to move away from Kansas, to follow her music wherever it took her.

She always was a good student, so where it took her was to Morningside Heights in Manhattan. In 1988, she began her freshman year at Barnard College. “I knew I wanted to play music, and New York was the zenith,” she said.

“And when I got to Barnard, everybody I met right away were Jews from Ardsley or Montclair, Joanna and Rochelle and Yocheved. I hadn’t been around so many Jews at once since sixth grade- and those are some of my closest friends today.

“I played the whole time I was in college,” she continued. “I majored in religion, with an emphasis on eastern religion. And then I let my freak flag fly. I stopped trying to judge myself for being attracted to musics that were outside western classical music. I decided that I would play for the joy of it.”

Of course, it takes money to play just for the joy of it, so Ms. James became an intern at Harper’s magazine; next, she took a job at a Buddhist magazine, Tricycle. “But music was like a wound that just bled through,” she said. It was all the way under her skin; if she denied it any logical expression, it would announce itself nonetheless. It would not just dry up and die. It would not leave her.

In 1994 she met Whit Smith, another third of the trio now called Hot Club of Cowtown — the other third is bassist Jake Erwin — and she gave in to the need to make music. In 1997 they all moved to Austin.

What kind of music? “Fiddle music is just in me,” she said. “I haven’t ever been to Hungary or Romania, or even to Israel, but there is a way in which this music is totally in me. When you play things like, say, Dark Eyes, and gypsy tunes, things that are cross-pollinated between eastern European and Jewish and gypsy music…

“It’s funny about Dark Eyes,” she added. “Sometimes, in Texas, an old-timer will come out from the countryside, to a show, and out of all the music we play, he’ll say, ‘You know what song I really love? Dark Eyes.’

“A lot of the people in Texas are from old German families who immigrated there in the early 1900s,” she said. “It is always sweet and surprising to me how deeply people are affected by the style of music. There is a deep, mysterious, aching humanity in those kinds of songs. And when the violin plays it, then it is an unknowable mystery.

“The violin is a mysterious entity that makes people remember things that they’ve never actually experienced.”

About 10 years ago, when the group was on an extended hiatus, Ms. James took the name she uses today. Until then, she had been Elana Fremerman. “I changed my name because it was a lot easier,” she said. “It’s not really difficult, I know, but so many people couldn’t say Fremerman. But my middle name is Jamie…” So, goodbye Elana Fremerman, and hello Elana James.

In some ways, it seems, Kansas City is a transitional place. You can go anywhere from there. It sits at the center of the country; it has been a gateway to the west throughout American history. Just as she felt pulled east, to the music and action of New York, Ms. James also always felt pulled to the west, to the dude ranches she’d visited as a child, to the campfires and horses and trails that seem as foreign as yurts and water buffalo to most of us here. “I started working as a horse wrangler in a dude ranch in Colorado,” Ms. James said. At first, she would ricochet from New York to the west every six months or so, as she would yearn for the place she wasn’t in and come to despise where she was. More recently, she has learned how to integrate the two, and now she frequently leaves Austin to work on a ranch in Montana, leading groups of vacationers on multiday trails and singing at the campfire after the sun sets.

“I had an epiphany when I realized that I could go ride horses and get paid for it,” she said. “That realization changed my life. It led me to western music.

“That itinerant, searching aspect of my life is extremely Jewish.”

“The fiddle belongs as much by a campfire in the middle of the forest as it does on a stage or in a coffeehouse,” she said. “A lot of cowboy songs came over with the cowboys from Ireland and England and wherever else they came from, from their own traditions.

“No matter whether you were pushing cattle or catching wild horses or whatever else you were doing, until recently at the end of the day people would entertain themselves by playing music for themselves and one another. Some of the songs that have come out of that tradition are incredibly beautiful.” They often are mournful songs, about death and loss, about leaving home, she said.

Ms. James, whose music includes the sort of traditional American themes and has worked in the kinds of traditional American settings that most of us know only second-hand, also has had the experience of working with two great American treasures. About a decade ago, the Hot Club of Cowtown toured with Bob Dylan, and also with Willie Nelson.

“Willie Nelson has not only been an inspiration, a genius musician and songwriter, but he also has been so wonderful to us personally,” she said. “He would come out with us every night and sing the encore with us.

“I have never heard a roar like the roar from the crowd every night. It was deafening. That was such a giving, generous, sweet thing to do. He was in his early 70s then. That he did that for us told us everything that I ever need to know about Willie Nelson.”

Elana James’ new album, Black Beauty, was released last month. “It’s folkier than what the Hot Club of Cowtown does,” she said. “It is full of my guilty pleasures.”

Elana James and the Hot Club of Cowtown will be at Mexicali Live, 1409 Queen Anne Road, on Saturday, March 14, at 8 p.m.

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