Originally hailing from New York City, the Hot Club of Cowtown initially started out as a duo featuring the Connecticut-born/Massachusetts-bred guitarist Whit Smith and Kansas-born Elana James (née Frememan). Prior to meeting, Smith studied privately with guitarists Bill Connors and Richard Lieberson, and led his own the 13-member Western Caravan. Similarly, James (who holds a B.A. in Comparative Religion from Barnard College) had studied classical violin at the Manhattan School of Music, as well as Dhrupad North Indian classical music with Pandit Vidhur Malik. She also spent several summers working on horse ranches in Colorado and playing fiddle in cowboy bands. Joining forces as Whit & Elana, they eventually relocated to San Diego, where they spent a year busking for tips and developing their repertoire. A second move brought them to Austin in the late '90s, where they officially adopted the Hot Club of Cowtown moniker and worked with bassist/producer Billy Horton for several albums, including 1998's Swingin' Stampede and 1999's Tall Tales. A third album, Dev'lish Mary, arrived in 2000 and featured contributions by bassist Matt Weiner.
The group's lineup solidified in 2001 with the addition of Tulsa, Oklahoma bassist Jake Erwin, whose slap-bass technique and love of both rockabilly and western swing helped further expand the group's sound. Together, the trio released 2002's Ghost Train, which found them playing original compositions alongside classic country and jazz tunes. They followed a year later with Continental Stomp, a live album recorded at Austin's famed Continental Club.
In 2005, the group briefly disbanded, with James recording a solo album and touring alongside Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. At the same time, Smith and Erwin continued to play together in Whit Smith's Hot Jazz Caravan. The trio never completely severed ties and by 2007 had reunited. Following a 2009 "best-of" collection, the reconstituted Hot Club of Cowtown released their sixth studio album, Wishful Thinking. A year later, they paid tribute to Bob Wills with What Makes Bob Holler and then joined Roxy Music on tour. In 2013, they released Rendezvous in Rhythm, their eight album of western swing standards and gypsy jazz. In 2015, at the Ameripolitan Awards, they won Western Swing Group of the Year and Elana James won Western Swing Female of the year. For 2016's Midnight on the Trail, they delved into a mix of cowboy ballads, including songs by Gene Autry, Cindy Walker, Johnny Mercer, and others. The following year, they celebrated their 20th anniversary, reissuing their early cassette-only album Western Clambake (recorded during their San Diego busking days). Wild Kingdom arrived in 2019 and included a guest appearance from drummer Damien Llanes. ~ Matt Collar, Rovi