Hot Club of Cowtown – What Makes Bob Holler

January 01, 1970

(Proper Records)


What Makes Bob Holler is Hot Club of Cowtown’s second album with fiddler/singer Elana James back in
the fold. For more of the story you might refer to my column on such, and on
hot clubs in general: If you just want to know what makes Bob holler, we’ll get
to the skinny pretty soon.


In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I
love this album’s title and cover art. My mother’s side of the family includes/included
– some have passed on – a few members who, if they weren’t quite hillbillies, were
within hollerin’ distance, which was pretty obvious when I attended my Uncle
Joe’s memorial potluck in the Maryland hills. In contrast with the more
“respectable,” church-going folk dominating my mother’s family, I got out of
the car to find a backyard with a keg in it and my Aunt Barbara, hair piled to
a height Marge Simpson might envy, holding court in the living room as Barbara
Mandrell provided the soundtrack. When my grandmother was alive, I remember disapproving
whispers about my grandfather’s lapses into bluegrass and beer. And in the late
‘70s, when I met some Northern Virginia boys who were playing rockabilly
(presaging and/or at the front of the revival), I felt right at home with my
elbows on the leader’s picnic table.


From about 1991 I’ve been listening to, learning about, and sometimes
playing Western Swing. I’m as likely as anyone to be predisposed to HCOC.  Man, I wish I could say I was more excited by
WMBH, which sports several tunes associated
with the band’s most frequent influence, Bob Wills. It’s by no means a dog –
“She’s Killing Me,” “Big Balls in Cowtown,” “Along the Navajo Trail,” and “The
Devil Ain’t Lazy” are all delivered with rousing gusto, with
guitarist/co-founder Whit Smith taking the vocal lead. Also effective are two
instrumentals — “Osage Stomp” and “Stay a Little Longer” – that showcase the
trio’s increasingly sharp cohesion.


Elana James’ fiddling just gets better. But while she was
able to sell me on her vocals with the originals she brought to the group’s
last outing, Wishful Thinking, here,
her light, Patti Page-ish tone lends an “easy listening” coating whenever
they’re in the lead or prominent via harmonies. Such is the case with a pretty
lame cover of a Western Swing and Blues standard, Memphis Minnie’s “What’s the
Matter with the Mill.”  In the hands of
Bob Wills, the tune just shone. The shine wasn’t about playing faster or louder,
but about the soul, and sense of immediacy, permeating so much vintage Western


Some of that’s about arrangement, and production. But some
of it’s about a sort of conservatism favored by HCOC. I’m pleased as punch that
the group’s around, keeping this very American music alive and well. But I’m
usually more excited by performers like an eccentric, Fresno-based character
named Kenny Hall, who is 87 years old as of this writing. Hall tends to perform
with a supply of beer at his feet, dressed in his favored tie-dye shirts. The
man knows hundreds of songs, dating back to – and past – The Civil War. With
Marta Hall frequently thrumming the boudhran; sometimes surrounded by a bevy of
string players, Kenny’s an incredible channel for arcane, old-timey Americana
and Folk music that he delivers like it’s no big deal; grinning with the joy of
it. I also favor the Western Swing that was produced by The Sunshine Boys, The
Modern Mountaineers, Johnny Lee Wills, and the better known Milton Brown, who was
in The Light Crust Doughboys with Bob Wills before forming “His Musical
Brownies.” Brown’s approach included more consistent favoring of Jazz and
Blues, and a fairly matter-of-fact, all-male vocal delivery. If a band comes
along that sources more from bands like Brown, I’ll be in up front, kickin’ up
a storm when I’m not begging to play along. 


Don’t get me wrong – when I saw HCOC last August, it pretty
well blew the roof off a packed house with some of the songs included in WMBC, additional Western Swing standards,
and originals from Wishful Thinking. The
band reminded us how creative it can be with its out-of-the-blue take on
Aerosmith’s “Chip Away the Stone.” Maybe that show spoiled me, a bit, for this


Killing Me,” “Big Balls in Cowtown,” “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” “Stay a Little


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