“We lived in San Diego all of ’97,” says Whit Smith by phone from Delaware. As guitarist, Smith is one-third of the country-swing/hot-jazz group Hot Club of Cowtown. “We arrived New Year’s Day, 1997, and we lived in Pacific Beach.” Originally a duo of Smith and fiddler Elana James, the two started the group in New York and then moved west to build up their repertoire. “In no time, we were playing for tips in Balboa Park, and we played the Ocean Beach farmers’ market. And Café 976, when it was about half the size. Mostly, we played for tips. We didn’t even have a PA system — we just yelled out the words — and people would come and give us money, and all of the farmers’ market people would give us, you know, bread and apples and whatever. It was total bartering for a pleasant life. It was good.” In 1998, Smith and James relocated to Austin, Texas, and added bassist Jake Erwin.
This year, Hot Club is touring in support of What Makes Bob Holler, a tribute to 1940s Western-swing icon Bob Wills. Smith agrees that, contrary to the clean image projected by Wills and his Texas Playboys, those guys were in truth hard-living, hardcore rock stars. “Oh, yeah. They were making cash every night, playing for big audiences and traveling around.” Smith says Wills, known for hollering during his shows, was an influence on their music.
Hot Club of Cowtown holds with tradition, refusing to modernize, and the instrumental workouts are fretboard-blistering. Audiences that disdain country, says Smith, love the trio. “What people enjoy about us is that we’re sincere. The music’s got a lot of energy, and I think they like that.”
HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN: AMSDconcerts, Thursday, April 28, 7:30 p.m. 619-303-8176. $20.