“I had no idea of what I was going to do,” the young musician recalls. “I was in a completely desolate state—I was thinking of going to law school, or working at Target, or going back to wrangling horses.” Fortunately for James, the choice of what to do next turned out to be a no-brainer, at least in the short term. “First I got a call from Fred Foster inviting me to play twin fiddles with [Texas legend] Johnny Gimble on Willie Nelson’s next record—and then, before I had the chance to actually do it, I got a phone call asking me to play in Bob Dylan’s band. When I got that call, I was so ecstatic that I felt like God had reached down out of heaven and anointed me with a golden wand.”
James ended up doing two tours with Dylan, who gave her a prominent place in the show, but by the end of the first, she had already absorbed the most important lesson the experience had to offer. “One thing I realized when I was playing in Bob Dylan’s band was that what we were doing was what everyone is doing, just at a higher level,” she says. “You write some songs, you teach them to people, and then you tour around and play them for other people. He’s had unparalleled success, and he’s peerless in what he does, and yet he’s still off doing exactly the same thing as everyone else. That was a revelation to me. And it made me realize that if I started my own thing, there’s a lot of dignity in just doing it; you don’t have to worry about who you’re playing for, you don’t have to worry about how it’s received, you just have to do it.”
The end result—or, more precisely, the first fruits of that realization—can be heard on Elana James, a February 27, 2007 release, but the process of “just doing it” began, Elana recalls, more modestly. “I took the summer of 2005 off, which is something I’d never done before; usually the summer is the busiest season for a musician. I was amazed at how peaceful it was! I didn’t worry about putting a band together or getting dates for a while; I just wrote songs. And then, in the fall, I started recording.”
Thanks to another stint on the road with Dylan, the album took a while to complete, but you can’t tell from listening. Made with some of the best of Austin’s fabled swing and country players, and featuring a guest appearance on two instrumentals by Gimble, who came to the studio on his 80th birthday, Elana James is a seamless blend of old and new—the former represented by a half-dozen standards, the latter by an equal number of originals that explore new variations on the western swing and string jazz she loves, as well as by “All The World And I,” a shimmering, almost other-worldly song that marks a different direction.
“That’s the kind of song I could never have done with the Hot Club,” James notes. “And yet, that’s the kind of thing that is definitely sitting inside me. And I have an affinity for songs that are almost modal, so even though I love the swing rhythm, I thought I’d break it up a little bit. The idea for the lyric came when I was reading a biography of the Carter Family; there was a part in there about one of the first songs A.P. Carter wrote, about how he was missing his lover, but so were the birds, and so was all of nature. I thought, ‘that’s such a beautiful sentiment, I’d like to do something like that.’”
“What’s nice about launching something on my own is that I don’t have have to worry about whether my bandmates think it’s inappropriate, or too similar to something else. And because I’m kind of starting over with new fans, I don’t have to worry about alienating anybody. It’s kind of a freeing situation—you do what you do because you want to do it. If people like it, that’s fantastic, but that wasn’t my first priority. As a matter of fact, in writing these songs, the most important thing was how they’re going to come off live. And that’s what’s nice about the record, too. The songs are fun to play—I tried to write them in such a way that they’re not too complicated—and yet everybody can shine.”
The players do indeed shine on Elana James, but none more than James herself. Her playing is supple and energetic, arguably more confident than in the past, while her singing ranges from sultry to assertive to haunting, whether she’s taking on a song from Duke Ellington (“I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” “I Don’t Mind”) or from country pioneer Carson Robison (“The Little Green Valley”), or whether she’s giving voice to her ow n words and melodies. And when she teams up with Gimble for a classic twin fiddle sound on “Silver Bells” and alternates solos with his electric mandolin on “Goodbye Liza Jane,” it’s apparent that they’re musical conversations between two colleagues bound by mutual respect and delight.
Happily, the sessions for Elana James yielded not just a delightful debut, but a band member, too. “A young and extremely talented player, Beau Sample, came in to do the bass on the album, and did a great job. I wasn’t even thinking of trying to hire him, but on the last day of the first sessions, he said, ‘call me if you ever need a bass player.’ So I started calling him immediately, and he kept saying ‘yes’ to doing these gigs for three peanuts and a half glass of water—and he wound up going out with me when I opened for Dylan on his 2006 tour.” Along with Sample, session guitarist Luke Hill was recruited, too—as was, in a touch that not only provided musical muscle but a token of James’s confidence and self-possession, former Hot Club bandmate Whit Smith.
“I’ve met a lot of new people who don’t compare what we’re doing with Hot Club, which is kind of a relief,” Elana acknowledges. “When you start your own thing, you don’t how it’s going to go. I’ve tried not to worry about that, because the most important thing is for you to be able to step off the stage and say, ‘this is what I do and this is how I do it.’ If people like it, that’s awesome—and if they don’t, then they should clear the way for the people who will, even if it takes 20 years.” Judging by the incandescence of the music on Elana James, and the reception she’s already gotten from enthusiastic audiences, it’s not going to take anywhere near that long.
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