Smith defines this as playing “several versions of G” where most people would just play one, with the result that his chord hand is as busy as his strumming hand.
“Moving the chords around makes it more ornate,” he said. “It’s ornate rhythm.”
James also developed techniques for strumming her fiddle to provide rhythm while Smith is playing lead.
“We called it ‘chunky,’” he said. “She started going ‘chunk, chunk, chunk’ behind me.”
On the advice of friends, they also moved to Austin, Texas, where their sound landed them an agent and their first record deal, and where they were eventually joined by bass player Jake Erwin.
“In ’98, things really started to roll for us as Hot Club of Cowtown,” Smith said.
They have opened for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Roxy Music; appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Mountain Stage” on NPR; and toured for the U.S. State Department, taking American music to Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Republic of Georgia and the Sultanate of Oman. Erwin has been inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
Their 11 previous albums have featured both original material and versions of tunes by favorite masters like Wills, the master of Texas swing.
Their latest, “Rendezvous in Rhythm,” mostly features interpretations of American standards from Tin Pin Alley, but also includes a song, “Dark Eyes,” that Smith describes as “probably Russian in origin.”
The album also explores the style of legendary Gypsy jazz guitar player Reinhardt, who formed the original “Hot Club” jazz band, which played in France in the ’30s and ’40s.
“In many ways, Django Reinhardt stands apart from European jazz,” Smith said, pointing to the “energy and fire and sense of cool” that made him a legend.
But Smith said Reinhardt was also distinguished by his absorption of American jazz, which he learned playing banjo as a teenager for European bands.