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Salon:Strings That Swing

Elana James, Photograph by Todd V. WolfsonRigorously trained in classical violin, Elana Fremerman James could have become a symphony musician like her mother. Instead, she fell under the spell of swing jazz and toe-tapping, twangy Western swing. Today, James, 41, is one of the world’s top-selling Western-swing artists. Performing with a bass player and guitarist as the Hot Club of Cowtown, she fiddles audaciously through “Cherokee Shuffle” and sings too, crooning her own composition “Reunion” and the standard “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

“What we do is very special, it’s unique and it’s incredibly American, and we haven’t watered it down or made it cheesy,” says James, who drew her stage name from her middle name, Jaime. “A lot of times when people revisit old standards, there’s this idea that they have to be done in this coy, ironic way. By avoiding clichés, we’ve been able to sustain ourselves over years when other bands have flared up and blown out.”

James has been touring for about 15 years, making regular appearances at folk festivals and venues across the country. She’s been a guest on A Prairie Home Companion and toured and recorded with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. An avid global traveler, she has shared her love of Western swing and swing jazz with audiences from London to Japan. This summer she’ll perform with the band at the Montana Folk Festival and in September at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival in Tennessee and Virginia.

Her next album, scheduled for a fall release, features 1930s French jazz standards inspired by jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Django Reinhardt. “The music they made together,” she says, “was just unprecedented, incredibly exciting, beautiful, sublime, romantic.”

It’s the kind of music you might hear on a Woody Allen movie soundtrack. Small wonder, then, that Allen’s acoustic tribute to his beloved Manhattan was one inspiration for James, a native of Prairie Village, Kansas, to attend Barnard. While at Barnard, James balanced violin and viola study at the Manhattan School of Music with her classwork in comparative religion. She became fascinated by religion during her travels through India and Nepal, but music, particularly folk fiddling, proved irresistible. The style that best suited her, she discovered, is a direct descendant of European jazz and folk, an amalgam of “Gypsy jazz” and Hungarian and Romanian peasant tunes. “It’s like people remember it even though they’ve never heard it,” she says.

James’ virtuosity and her connection with audiences made her ideal for a gig in Azerbaijan in 2006. The U.S. Department of State hired the Hot Club of Cowtown to perform more than a dozen concerts over the course of a week and introduce elementary school students to Western swing. The first American band to tour outside  Azerbaijan’s capital, the trio even received a last-minute invitation to a wedding, where they jammed with local musicians.

“They just about got mobbed loading their instruments into the back of the van,” says Liz Murphy, cultural outreach officer for the state department’s cultural programs division. “They were wonderful representatives, and Elana couldn’t have been nicer to work with.”

The state department hired James again in 2011, sending the Hot Club of Cowtown to Oman to showcase traditional fiddle tunes at a cultural arts and music festival near Yemen. Playing “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” for an audience of women, some in burkas, was a slightly surreal experience, notes James.

Despite her fondness for international travel, she does plan to scale back her touring from 150 shows a year to cocoon for a little while in her Austin home. She’s eager to focus on composing, honing her technique, and staying musically honest, a trait she admires in Bob Dylan. “I still think of him all the time when I perform,” James says. “I like his attitude. To me, what he’s bringing forth from himself is something very deep and very honest. When the song comes out of him, it’s very true. That is my favorite thing in any performer. My favorite players and my favorite vocalists have the same quality: They’re telling the truth.” — by June D. Bell

Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson