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Review: Hot Club of Cowtown, What Makes Bob Holler

Hot Club of Cowtown
What Makes Bob Holler
[Proper Records (2011)]

“What Makes Bob Holler” was one of the last songs a wheel chair-bound Bob Wills ever recorded before his 1975 passing. But if he had heard Hot Club of Cowtown’s reverence for western swing and stunning interpretations of his songs, he would have had plenty more to whoop and holler about.

So, while Hot Club of Cowtown (HCC) seems like a natural for honoring Wills’s legacy with this tribute outing, it also seems a bit odd, a mere trio attempting to walk in the boots of a supersized western swing orchestra that often came equipped with a boppin’ jazz horn section. However, given these parameters, HCC makes it work. The Wills ambience they capture is more of the late 1930s vintage than of the 1940s Tiffany Transcriptions era with the emphasis being on HCC’s acoustically-generated, sans drums rhythms that are so appro pro for that era of western swing. Whit Smith’s precisely picked guitar and jazz-tinged tone recall the ghost of Eldon Shamblin while Elana James’ take-off fiddle solos are fairly accurate note-for-note quotes of the original recordings. Though Wills was certainly a competent fiddler, comparing Wills and James is like comparing apples to oranges. James is more aggressive and extracts much more of a gorgeous tone from her instrument (“Maiden’s Prayer”) than Wills did. On the other hand, Wills’s accumen was being a bandleader and hiring topflight jazzmen without ever feeling inferior to their titan skills.

Most of what is featured here are Bob Wills’s best known staples (“Time Changes Everything,” “Faded Love”) that will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has ever listened to Wills and western swing. A few of the lesser known tunes, such as the opening “She’s Killing Me” and the instrumental “Smith’s Reel” are much more appealing because they’re not as omnipresent among Wills covers, and this CD could have benefitted from more of these obscure tracks. “Osage Stomp” is a fairly exciting ride. Originally an adaptation of the Memphis Jug Band’s “Ruckus Juice and Chitlin’,” Jake Erwin gives his acoustic bass a hard, blitzkrieg slap that sets up a bout of James’ jagged, warp-drive bowing, which translated into fiddle-speak is a double shuffle jumping to a triple shuffle.

Though it’s a fitting tribute to a king of western swing, HCC smartly shies away from imitating Wills’s exuberant ahhhhhhhhh-haaaaaaaaaaaaa’s and yass’es that so many have clownishly mimicked ever since. The other thing HCC works to its advantage is not lathering on the technologically superior studio gloss but keeping it somewhat lo-fi, that, like the rest of this, emulates the spirit while keeping HCC’s own identity firmly intact.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

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