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Field of Dreams

Hot Club of Cowtown gets the call to join the majors with Willie and Bob

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Every baseball person knows the drill.

You have a young, versatile phenom, someone with dazzling fundamentals who's been working his way through the system for a few years. Still, the player needs that one more something -- say, the ability to pull an occasional ball to the opposite field.

To help him develop, you protect him. Maybe you pencil him into the batting order right before a friendly, grizzled veteran, someone working rehab after taking a pitch on his hand. Of course, you also guard him with the No. 4 hitter, the big man, the iconic center of the order. It's a proven strategy, a movie script, a given.

In baseball, it goes that way. But in the cutthroat world of music, the western-swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown may be the first band to benefit from that kind of support in a tour stretching across 22 minor-league baseball stadiums, including the T-Bones' Community America Ballpark in Kansas City, Kansas.

In this scenario, Willie Nelson is the jovial veteran (the one with a bad habit or two), and the home-run hitter is played by no less a figure than Bob Dylan. The bands and crew know the whole experience as the "Field of Dreams" tour. (Dylan's Web site calls the revue "The Bob Dylan Show.")

Hot Club of Cowtown plays American traditional music in the mold of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys but broadened to include jazz and a name that's an Austin, Texas, spin on the '20s legends the Hot Club of Paris. Prairie Village native Elana Fremerman handles the violin (she got her start fiddling for tips in Westport) and country-torch vocals, guitarist Whit Smith zips through Djangoesque solos and '20s-style crooners, and Jake Erwin sings harmony and thumps the ol' upright. But as talented as the group is (especially in the "hot licks" realm), drafting the three musicians for this epic tour at first seemed like a stretch.

And yet here they are.

"We were on a television show in England, Later With Jools (a popular Saturday-night music program hosted by ex-Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland), and Bob Dylan apparently saw it," Smith explains. "They called us up and said, 'Would you come and do this?' We said, 'Let me think about that.'"

Smith pauses for a millisecond, then shouts, "Yes!"

A minor-league ballpark, with its peculiar dimensions and acoustic abnormalities, might be a challenge for lesser artists, but these veterans have handled the task masterfully in venues ranging in capacity from 6,000 to 10,000.

"The first seven shows were sold out," Smith says. "They set up a big outdoor stage just beyond the infield, facing the bleachers, and then they let the people in. They lay down this huge plastic-flooring stuff on the grass, and then they fence off anywhere they don't want you to go, so people aren't stealing home plate and scuffing up the pitcher's mound -- especially at Cooperstown (New York, where the tour began), which is like hallowed ground."

Hot Club has played countless outdoor events, including the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winfield, Kansas. But the group's music seems more naturally suited to intimate venues, such as the Continental Club in Austin, where the band recorded its most recent album, Continental Stomp. So just how does an acoustic swing trio make a dent with the Willie and Bob crowd?

"We tend to come out playing faster tunes," Smith says. "We usually hit 'em with some bright fiddle tunes -- that gets attention. We've been experimenting with the middle couple of tunes. Sometimes we keep them all fast. Sometimes we try a different, jazzier tune. Then we roll into 'Little Liza Jane' and 'Orange Blossom Special,' put some coal on the fire."

Naturally, Smith knows that most fans haven't made the pilgrimage to watch Hot Club of Cowtown, but the band has had a trump card for luring fans to its opening set.

"The last couple shows, Willie Nelson has been coming out and doing an encore with us and singing 'Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone,'" Smith says. "The fans just freak out. They race down to the field, and anyone who wasn't listening starts to pay attention to what they just missed."

After their performances, the Hot Club members become just another set of picnickers camped out on the grass and soaking in the performances of two American idols.

"We've watched every night," Smith says. "Willie changes his set a little bit, and Bob changes his set every night. Willie has his whole family out there. There's, like, eight buses parked back there. That's a great way to spend the summer."

A summer of this magnitude on a tour featuring two aging icons can have a catch-them-while-you-still-can element, but Smith insists that both Nelson and Dylan are in top form. Still, the tour has forced Hot Club to make the kind of tough decision that most bands would dread -- or love.

"You ready for this one?" Smith says. "Willie asked us just last week if we would do Farm Aid this year in Seattle, and that's on the same day as Winfield."

Smith pauses dramatically. A sigh. A gulp. And ...

"We're going to Winfield," he says finally. "I'll tell you, that was a hard call. This is our third year [at Winfield], and it's always a blast. They put us on the cover of the program. We couldn't not go. We're honored to no end."

For now, though, Hot Club of Cowtown is honored to be at the bottom of the playbill, enjoying its moment in the big time, even if it is still in the minors.

"This is the '22 Days of Christmas' tour -- that's what I call it," Smith says. "It's really positive, really fun. The crew's taken really good care of us, the music all works, the show is great, the fans really dig it ... it's Christmas."

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