Hot Club of Cowtown have never been strangers to covering older songs. Their sound, a seamless blend of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli-style hot jazz and Bob Wills-style western swing, means that they can mix originals and covers and never feel like they’re leaving a sepia-toned past. Usually, you can count on a few covers on their records. At worst, the band’s work can sound a little too indebted to its influences, but they’re usually picking pretty good folks to sound like. At best, and more often as the years have gone on, Hot Club of Cowtown have managed to make something unique blossom from their minimalist trio approach.
With What Makes Bob Holler, they set their sights on one half of their musical DNA: the King of Western Swing himself, Bob Wills. Consisting of singer/guitarist Whit Smith, singer/violinist Elana James, and bassist Jake Erwin, the Club have their work cut out for them when it comes to replicating the sound of Wills’s much larger Texas Playboys — a group that boasted drums, reeds, and horns at one point. To their credit, they focus on Wills’s pre-World War II material, and present it with a vintage sound. It’s a smart choice: In lieu of a big sound, Hot Club of Cowtown go for an ear-pleasing vibe that sounds like it could be coming straight out of the ’40s.
Everything here is, at the very least, pleasant and easy to listen to in the way that covers of any good songs usually are. The band have covered Wills before, and even showcased some of the songs here on stage before getting them on tape for Holler, so they have the ease and familiarity that the music requires. Western swing, though, also requires spirit, which Hot Club of Cowtown don’t lack. Smith’s guitar playing is fleet and clean, James’ fiddle playing is vibrant, and Erwin’s slap-bass style provides nimble bottom end and percussion. But what really elevates the set’s best songs are the harmonies. Songs like “Oklahoma Hills”, “Time Changes Everything”, or “Stay a Little Longer” get a little extra giddy-up in their step when the voices come together like long-lost friends. If there’s one downside, it’s that the instrumentals sound a bit less satisfying by comparison.
Hot Club’s decision to mix favorites with more obscure songs also results in a few surprises for those of us who aren’t steeped in Wills lore. Songs like “Big Ball in Cowtown” (AC/DC were far from the first to grin their way through that imagery) and “What’s the Matter with the Mill?” (sample lyric: “can’t get no grindin'”) are innuendo-filled and lighthearted in their sauciness. And the faster, more playful pace of such songs let the band shake off some of the tastefulness of their playing in favor of some pure showin’ off.
What at first glance seems like a holding pattern for the band is actually a very fun record, especially if you like the sound of western swing. Hot Club of Cowtown aren’t just copying these songs straight from the songbook. In nearly every case, they’re bringing their own personalities into the mix by adding touches of other songs, inserting sly jokes, or just cutting loose. It’s the sound of a band paying tribute to a major influence, but also making something they can be proud to call their own.