Wild Kingdom, the latest release from Texas’ Hot Club of Cowtown, arrives 27 September and is comprised largely of original compositions from guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith and fiddler/vocalist Elana James. Smith’s “Caveman” is exemplary of the group’s ability to respect tradition while moving into new and contemporary climes.
Sounding like a classic from an earlier era, the tune is buoyed by Smith’s inimitable vocal delivery and soulful guitar figures. James, meanwhile, weaves her particular magic in with taste and sparkle. With Jake Erwin’s steady bass figures added in, “Caveman” is a Hot Club of Cowtown tune for the ages.
Smith says that “Caveman” was written close to the end of the composition cycle. “It actually started as a folk song,” he says. “I played it totally different then. It was almost an Irish fiddle tune. I liked it, but I knew that it wouldn’t be appropriate for what we were doing. I decided to add lyrics to it, give it a bridge and give it more of a Western swing vibe.”
He adds, “It started as a little bit of a joke, that one person painted all of those cave paintings because the pictures all looked the same. If you were a chief, then your cave was nothing until it had this guy’s artwork in it. He had his groupies. He was a celebrity with an entourage.” From there, the story evolved. “There was a lot I didn’t know. But those paintings inspired a lot of artists through the ages. It was more complex than I thought. But I do have this feeling that people have always been the same and that if you gave a caveman an iPhone, he’d have an Instagram page and be adept at using it by the end of the week.”
He concludes, “It’s part Monty Python and part Bob Wills. With something serious in there too.”
Smith recently spoke with PopMatters about the group’s aesthetics and, of course, guitars.
I appreciate that Hot Club’s music is rooted in tradition but that you’re not afraid to make contemporary references in your lyrics.
It’s a little abstract because you want that aesthetic that appeals to people who like that kind of music because that’s basically why you liked that kind of music. I identify with the western swing and jazz of the 1930s and ’40s and to a degree from the ’50s. I don’t want just to start playing modern chords or modern voices or get into modern production. Depending on how hard you listen, you might say, “That’s an older style, but it sounds fresh.” I would be happy if I heard that. [Laughs.] I don’t feel wedded to the past at all.
Do you have a particular guitar you’re using throughout this album or do you switch out depending on the song?
For this record, I primarily used the same guitar I use on the road, which is a 1946 Gibson L5 that started life as an acoustic, non-cutaway. Like an orchestra guitar. Somebody, a long, long time ago gave it a cutaway. So, I can get my hands up the neck a little further. I have a friend who makes very nice Bigsby style guitars and pickups and accessories. He wound me the pickup. I just stick that on there with putty.
I play it through a 1937 Gibson amp exclusively on the record. On the road, I use a tube amplifier that’s modified and as close as I can get it to that Gibson.
Do you tend to use the L5 for writing?
I guess I do. You don’t know when ideas are going to hit you. If I’m in a dressing room or a hotel, that’s the one that’s going to be in my hands. But the guitar I really love and play at home the most is a 1929 L5. Old guitars are salty old characters, and they don’t always feel like giving you something. But it’s hard to live without them.
Is there any challenge in recording with vintage guitars?
All my recording experiences have been with vintage guitars. My engineers are usually OK with it. Sometimes those guitars are a little bit noisy. They buzz and rattle and occasionally you have to put putty on something or tape something down.
For Wild Kingdom, we used a studio in San Marcos. It’s really nice. It has a main room with a high ceiling and hardwood floors, which is not that common anymore. It’s a university-owned studio, so sometimes students will come in and watch. When they did, they’d sometimes say, “Why does your amplifier sound so different?” It sounds like an a capella group. Sometimes we play gigs, and people you wouldn’t think would care about gear come up and say, “What is that sound?”
There probably isn’t a lot of volume to it.
It’s somewhere between 11 and 13 watts. In the past, when we performed with drums, I’d disappear. The guy would hit the snare, and that was it. In the studio, you have the advantage of a microphone, and you can control that dynamic. That’s why I have a different amp on the road. But these are magnificent.