By Mark Guarino
Many singer-songwriters are inspired to write original songs because of Bob Dylan. Elana James was inspired to write original songs by playing with Bob Dylan.
Chicago audiences saw James in 2005 when she opened for, and eventually joined Dylan’s road band. The story began in the 2004 summer when James and her western swing group Hot Club of Cowtown opened for the Willie Nelson-Bob Dylan bill that hit minor league ballparks, including the one that hosts the Schaumburg Flyers. That fall she was back in Chicago for a weeklong worth of shows at the Auditorium Theatre, playing front-and-center alongside Dylan.
“He would take standards and his own tunes and reinvent them, which goes to show you that material stood up fine. That was inspiring to me,” she said.
Her three tours with Dylan led to James’ self-titled album, which is largely a collection of originals, unlike the many Hot Club albums that injected old country, blues and jazz standards with contemporary whimsy and virtuosic playing. The album also boasts cameos from Johnny Gimble, the venerated Texas fiddle player who famously served time as a member of Bob Wills’ Playboys during their prime years.
For James, a chance to record solo, write her own songs and work with such personal heroes, became a landmark life change. She decided to complete the change by flipping her name, shifting James — her middle name — to her last. In Hot Club, she was Elana Fremerman, a name not guaranteed to roll off the tongue at the ticket booth.
“I think that was the time to do it,” she said. “I consulted several people respected in the industry and they said, ‘you can do whatever you want’. For me, I was so tired with struggling with that last name, the decks are stacked against you. It’s kind of a way of simplifying things.”
James, 32, grew up in a suburb of Kansas City and studied classical violin in her childhood. Music kept interrupting plans: Studying comparative religion at Barnard College in New York City, she went to India to learn Indian music. Back home, she went to Southern Colorado — thanks to a fascination with horses as a child — and worked as a wrangler and a packer.
On that job she eventually started to learn about western swing, the style of Texas music that incorporates the sophisticated sound of a jazz big band with the carefree touch of country. Since fiddle is what drives western swing, providing the melody, James was in luck. It became an unpredictable turn of events for someone who grew up
“That gave me authenticity,” she said of her ranching days. “Part of my misunderstanding of fiddle music growing up is it was played by uneducated people living in the sticks … It is now so clear to me that that is not what it is. No one takes you aside when you’re in the youth symphony and says, ‘you should listen to Bob Wills’. When I did listen in my mid-20’s, I heard this music with several different layers going on simultaneously. I think that elegance, that totally unpretentious energy is so spontaneous and lively. Those things speak to me.”
An ad in the Village Voice brought James together with singer-guitarist Whit Smith in New York. She left town to join a Top 40 cover band on tour, but soon regrouped with Smith in San Diego where they busked streetcorners for a year, building a repetoire and learning what kept an audience interested. In 1998, Hot Club moved to Austin, Tex. — the spiritual home of the music they were playing — where they enlisted new bandmembers, signed to HighTone and released the first of five albums that spanned all styles of American roots music.
Smith ended the group and today they perform periodically, including overseas in Japan and Europe. (The group headlines FitzGerald’s American Music Festival Sunday and returns to the area to play an outdoor concert Aug. 7 at Dawes Park in Evanston.)
Her Dylan experience means continuing to face wide-eyed Dylan-ites who press her for an inside peek to the mystique. She’s not talking except to say how playing those tours put the act of making music into perspective.
“He is doing the same thing (most musicians) are doing,” she said. “He’ll write songs and his band learns them and you go out and perform them for people. It’s the same thing on a larger scale. To be in a small band starting out and see this going on, you realize the dignity of doing what you have to do. It so happens that some people are more successful, some people are less successful or success takes longer. But integrity takes the same.”