The Hot Club of Cowtown is Whit Smith on guitar, Elana Fremerman on violin and Jake Erwin on bass. Smith and Fremerman sing lead and Erwin sings backup and harmony parts. For the purposes of recording Ghost Train, Hot Club of Cowtown found Joe Kerr to sit in on piano for a few cuts and Gurf Morlix to take the producer's chair.
The writing credits go mostly to Fremerman and Smith, who write their own material; Smith co-wrote two cuts with Dave Stuckey. But they pick some interesting covers for Ghost Train as well, including the Rodgers and Hart penned You Took Advantage of Me, Pray for the Lights to Go Out" by Will E. Skidmore, Chip Away the Stone by Richard Supa, and two traditional tunes: Fuli Tschai (Bad Girls) and Cherokee Shuffle.
From the sound of Ghost Train, Hot Club of Cowtown seems first and foremost a live band. Not that the recording of or the playing on the CD was loose or sloppy, quite the opposite in fact. Gurf Morlix was able to capture the organic nature of Hot Club of Cowtown's acoustic music. All of the instruments sound crisp and clear, and listening on headphones rewards one with the added intimacy of audible finger slides and pick clicking on metal strings as well as the sharp backslap of a well-played jump bass. These elements as part of the larger recording indicate that Morlix and the band have created a live feel on purpose. The very success of their efforts leads one to believe it would be necessary to see the Hot Club of Cowtown perform live in order to experience the full effect of their music.
Indeed, the Hot Club of Cowtown has chosen to make music that succeeds best when heard in person. They get their stylistic cues from such venerable performers as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (which included Django Reinhart and Stephane Grappelli), and Jellyroll Morton. These influences combine to create a style that translates well to recordings, but the recordings are really only a substitute for a live performance.
However, in Ghost Town the Hot Club of Cowtown does show a glimpse —perhaps the beginning— of the ability to transcend their stylistic forebears. It Stops With Me is dark, moody, and reminiscent of some of Django Reinhart's compositions. But the subject of the lyric is a declaration by the singer to put aside the abuse suffered at the hands of an adult and not continue the cycle. "The time has passed and I've moved on/ Made up my mind to forget the wrong… I've buried the hatchet, it stops with me/ Hate costs plenty love would have been free." All the elements of It Stops With Me combine to lift it up past merely a recording of a performance that the listener would have enjoyed more in person. With more songs as strong as It Stops With Me, the Hot Club of Cowtown show the potential to grow into recording artists as well as performing artists.
Other highlights of the CD include Fuli Tschai, Chip Away the Stone, and Pray for the Lights to Go Out. Fuli Tschai shows off the band's chops by running through tempo and time changes flawlessly and without throwing the listener off the melody. It's a tune that will bring a smile to your face when you here the Hot Club of Cowtown play it.
Chip Away the Stone is languid and determined. Whit Smith's vocals provide the perfect inflection for the song's first person point of view. We are never in doubt that he will with dogged determination not "Stop 'til your love is my very own."
Finally, Pray for the Lights to Out dates back to 1916 and suits the Hot Club of Cowtown's style to a tee. (Or is it the other way around?) In either case, it's an excellent way to end a CD that is essentially a performing artist's calling card. Pray for the Lights to Out may as well be the last song of the night because it will guarantee a request from the audience from an encore. It leaves the listener ready hear more of the same and perhaps just a hair disappointed that there wasn't one more song on the disc. Who was it that said, "Leave them wanting more?" The Hot Club of Cowtown does precisely that on Ghost Train.
So go pick up a copy of Ghost Train. It's a great way to get introduced to a wonderful performing group, it shows their potential to grow beyond that label, and it will leave you wanting a little more of what the Hot Club of Cowtown has to offer.
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