Musician Jake Erwin (left) says a highlight of his career has been opening for Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Photo courtesy Jake Erwin

Tending a garden. Hiking. Camping out. Just a few of the little pleasures in reach of most of us, should we choose to indulge in them.

For some, however, simple things like those stay tantalizingly out of reach. If you’re a working musician who spends a lot of time on the road, for instance, you’re not likely to settle down anywhere long enough to start a garden, and whatever hiking you’ll be doing will be mostly in airport terminals, your camping out in hotel rooms, buses or vans.  

Which helps explain why Jake Erwin, longtime bassist for the Western-swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown, has moved back to Tulsa.

“I’ve thought about it for a long time,” he says. “I’m very grateful that I got to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a musician and travel and make a living doing that. But in the past few years, I’ve come to realize that it’s such a sacrifice of time – just day-to-day. You’re in airports, you’re in hotels, and I wanted to do something else with a lot of my time and energy.

“I still haven’t figured out what that is,” he adds with a laugh, “but I knew I wanted more time to have a garden and go hiking and camping and enjoy other things in life. I was just spending way too much time on the road.”

So he returned to the town he grew up in and left back in the late 1990s, when he and some local friends moved to Norman after high school – with the intent of going to college at OU. 

“They did go to school there, but I got sidetracked by music,” he notes with another laugh, “and I ran away with the circus.” 

Music had been a part of his life long before the move, although the upright bass wasn’t his original instrument of choice.

“I’d fooled around, trying to play drums, trying to play guitar a little bit,” he recalls. “I was kind of a punk-rock kid in high school, and a lot of that music led me back to American roots music: early country and western and honky-tonk, early blues – a lot of early blues – and jump blues, and Western swing. The upright bass seemed to be something they all had in common, all of these styles that I was getting interested in. 

“I got my first bass in Muskogee. This was before I moved to Norman. I’d looked all around Tulsa trying to find a used bass. The really fine orchestral basses were hugely expensive, way out of my league. But I found this old used bass fiddle in Muskogee at a pawn shop. I remember driving out there and checking it out, and of course I had to put it on layaway because I couldn’t afford to buy it all at once. Finally, after a couple of payments, I got that bass – and I played it into the ground.” 

Erwin had found himself especially attracted to a style known as slap-bass, in which, essentially, the strings are slapped rather than plucked. Over the years, Erwin has emerged as one of its leading practitioners. He started building that reputation around 1997, when he, as he put it, “ran away with the circus,” joining the hard-touring rockabilly band Kim Lenz and the Jaguars. 

“We traveled all over the country,” Erwin remembers. “That was my first professional band, and it was just fortunate that they were getting that much work.”

He was living in Dallas and still touring with Lenz and the Jaguars a couple of years later, when he first met guitarist Whit Smith and fiddler Elana James, from Hot Club of Cowtown, who had moved from New York to Austin, via San Diego.

“They had splintered off from a much bigger Western swing outfit, and they were working on this trio,” he says. “I met them in Austin, and then I’d see them on the road occasionally. Then I got to do a recording session that both of them were on, with a guy named Dave Stuckey.” 

The session produced Get A Load of This, an all-star Western-swing CD released in early 2000 and credited to Dave Stuckey & the Rhythm Gang. It was, says Erwin, “a good opportunity to get to know Whit and Elana a little bit better and to get to work with them for a few days.”

At the end of that year, Erwin found out they were looking for a bass player. 

He was living in Austin then, where he had been working with the likes of the Asylum Street Spankers and Wayne Hancock. “I wasn’t playing with anybody regularly at the time, so they [Smith and James] hired me to do a tour,” he recalls. “I think we were in North Carolina, I’d never played any gigs with them, so we just rehearsed a couple of days and started the tour.

“It was great – a good fit. I worked with them for the next 20 years.” 

His personal highlight of that two-decade stretch? Touring as the opening act for Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan in 2004. 

“We did several dates with them that summer, and it was just incredible, because we got to meet them and Willie started coming out and doing a song with us at the end of our sets,” he says. “We were just this tiny opening band that these crowds, largely, hadn’t heard of, and he was coming out and doing that, which was just incredible. It was great to play with him, and such an honor to open for those guys.” 

Although he’s no longer the full-time bassist for Hot Club, he still works with the group on a part-time basis, something he doesn’t intend to quit doing.

“In fact,” he says, “I spoke with Whit yesterday and he asked me about some upcoming dates. I’m hoping I can do some of those. I love playing with them, and anytime I can, I will.” 

It’s clear that while he’s thinking seriously about the kind of day job he’s going to seek as a replacement for his music career, Erwin is not about to give up the bass. Since returning to Tulsa, he’s performed with such well-known area acts as the Tulsa Playboys, Janet Rutland, Shelby Eicher, and Jacob Tovar, and he’s working with guitarist Mike Ritchie in a new string-jazz trio called Combo Nouveau, influenced by guitarist Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France (which inspired Hot Club of Cowtown’s name). 

“I love music,” he says. “It’s always going to be a part of me. I can’t get it out of my system, and I hope I can always continue to play. But I’m really interested in doing some kind of public service. I can’t be a salesman and sell people stuff they don’t need. I’ve just got to figure out where to land.”

Whenever that landing comes, it’ll likely be in Tulsa, where he not only can put in a garden and do some hiking and camping if he wants, but also continue to slap his upright bass on stages all across the area.  

“I’ve had the good fortune to meet a lot of great musicians in Tulsa, just in the last year or so,” he notes. “I’m thankful to be getting work around here and meeting more people. It’s terrific.”

Some have said, regarding the music scene, that Tulsa is the new Austin. Having now spent some time in the music scenes of both places, would Erwin subscribe to that theory? 

“The bar is high in Tulsa,” he says. “Tulsa has amazing talent, amazing musicians. But I wouldn’t necessarily compare it to Austin. I’d say Tulsa is the new Tulsa.” He laughs again. “It’s its own thing.”

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