Legend has it that pioneering Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson bargained with Beelzebub to become a skilled musician. In Nashville, where skilled players are everywhere, the devil might have to dangle a more enticing prospect: a gig with a band like The Time Jumpers. A pro picker couldn’t pick a better situation than this one, where interaction is easy and ego-free, the musicianship is uniformly high-caliber, and the emphasis is on sheer enjoyment. All 11 members of the Jumpers are established session and touring musicians, or recording artists in their own right, so their weekly Monday night residency is kept refreshingly ambition-free, not unlike a gang of seasoned card sharks getting together for laughs and penny poker. The fact that the 15-year-old band’s star has continued to rise makes for one of Nashville’s most unlikely success stories.
“We didn’t plan for this to happen,” says Kenny Sears, the band’s genial spokesman. “We didn’t go about this thinking, ‘Okay, we’re gonna build a career out of this.’ It was just purely for the fun of it, and to keep our chops up, with the kind of music that required chops,” says Sears of the freewheeling yet often intricate Western swing for which the Jumpers are best known. (In a lineup overflowing with distinction, the signature three-man fiddle section—featuring Sears, Joe Spivey and Larry Franklin—is perhaps the band’s most notable feature.) Adds guitarist Andy Reiss of the band’s early days, “We were playing largely for ourselves and a handful of other musicians. As we went along, it kept getting tighter and cleaner,” he says, “because that’s what pro musicians do.”
There were nights when the musicians and their guests outnumbered the audience at the modest-sized Station Inn, but over time, the 12th Avenue club began swelling to capacity—with paying customers—on Monday nights. Explains “Ranger Doug” Green, who joins the Jumpers as rhythm guitarist and star yodeler whenever he’s not on the dusty trail with the Grammy-winning trio Riders in the Sky, “People were getting turned away; people would come from France and New Zealand. Because you had to be there by . . . say, six or six thirty for a nine o’clock show.”
“We had grown quite fond of the Station Inn,” says Sears. “But also, our hearts were breaking because we had so many people outside wanting to get in and couldn’t.” In June of 2012, the Jumpers made the bittersweet move to 3rd & Lindsley, a club roughly triple the size of their original home. Green acknowledges that the larger club, with a roomier stage and superb sound equipment, has been “altogether much more accommodating” for both band and audience. Still, he allows that the relocation cost the Jumpers some of the cozy intimacy attained within The Station Inn’s walls. “We miss [The Station Inn] . . . it’s a really sentimental place, ’cause that’s where the band began and matured.” Sears affirms that the change of venue was “a good move for us, but like most changes, we were a little apprehensive about it, and a little sad.”
Even now, people are still being turned away from the regularly sold-out shows. Customers of all ages and stripes come to hear new life breathed into old-school country and Western swing. They come to marvel at the astonishing musicianship and enjoy the heartening onstage camaraderie. And, make no mistake, they come to see Vince Gill, who shows up in his street clothes and leaves his superstar status at the curb (if it makes it even that far).
Gill, who had been sitting in and subbing with the band since around 2007, made a serious overture to join in 2010, after singer Carolyn Martin exited the group to pursue a solo career. “Vince said, ‘Well, I can sing as high as her,’” recalls accordion and piano man Jeff Taylor, laughing. “And we said, ‘Well, if you want in the band, come on.’ And the next week, he showed up. That was three or four years ago.”
“From [Vince’s] point of view,” admits Sears, “I couldn’t imagine coming in and pulling up a stool and being one of the guitar players and singers, after you’re a household name. And from our point of view,” he says, “I thought it might be a little awkward.” The arrangement, he says, “has worked out so perfectly, and so seamlessly.”
“In terms of popularity and notoriety, he’s obviously upped our profile many times,” says fellow guitarist Reiss. “But he’s such a generous and humble man, he’s happy to use that for publicity’s sake, but not to give himself any more clout within the band.” Praises Green, “Vince is very well aware of [his celebrity], and he has trod very carefully, determined to be one of the guys and not be Vince and The Time Jumpers.” Still, as Jeff Taylor asserts, “There’s no denying that he’s a huge part of the reason why we’re seeing the level of success that we are.”
While they carefully guard their easygoing gig’s original purpose, the Jumpers now enjoy routinely lucrative Monday nights in town as well as traveling engagements that make it worth the trouble of boarding a bus. Armed with a self-titled, all-original Rounder Records album, the band has been appearing on such national shows as Imus in the Morning and, more notably, a Ryman Auditorium-hosted episode of the venerable, Opry-inspired radio show A Prairie Home Companion—an ideal pairing of band and vehicle.
“As a musician, there are certain things you want to be a part of,” says accordionist and multi-instrumentalist Taylor, who’s had his share of high-profile gigs with the likes of Ricky Skaggs and Elvis Costello. “I’ve always resonated with that show, and I feel like this band is such a perfect fit for it. And it was such great evidence that we were. When we were on it we were supposed to do four songs, and we ended up doing seven.”
Another recent hometown appearance again took the Jumpers outside of 3rd & Lindsley, putting them in front of one of the larger outdoor crowds they’ve entertained to date. In May, the band performed at the grand opening for the long-awaited Music City Center, on a multigenre bill that included Sheryl Crow, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Nashville Symphony. Kenny Sears reveals that the Music City Center event brought a revelation about the city that the Texan-born and Oklahoma-raised musician now calls home.
“There were a lot of folks there. So much so,” recalls Sears, “that when I was standing onstage there, looking out over the crowd—and the stage was built there on Fifth Avenue, looking down Fifth all the way down to Broadway—and seeing, you know, the Hall of Fame on the left, and the Symphony Hall on the right, I was thinking, ‘You know, this just doesn’t look like Nashville. This looks like you’re doing a concert in Times Square or something.’ And it occurred to me . . . that this is a game-changer for Nashville. They could bring anybody in the world there and have a concert on that stage.”
Nashville, of course, could cordon off its boundaries tomorrow and never once want for inspiring live music.
The Time Jumpers are a premier example of this fact. Perhaps only in Music City could players of this caliber find the kind of local foundation that allowed for their long, slow, comfortable ramp-up into becoming a world-class act and, somehow, remaining a local treasure. “I think we’ve had three rehearsals in the last fifteen years, honestly,” says Sears, whose wife, Dawn, added her classic country vocals to the mix somewhere around 2009. (Sears, who admits that the band’s exact history is hazy, offers a telling mock apology: he didn’t know there would be a test.) Before the band’s reputation began growing, says Sears, there was “a pretty deep pool [of songs]—you know, a lot of years of rehearsing onstage.”
Green, describing himself as “kind of a folk musician who doesn’t have a lot of [advanced musical] training,” cites the band’s composite skill level, and ability to wing it, as an equally important factor. “Those guys are such pros. They can get an arrangement together real quick, before a show, and remember it perfectly. It’s astonishing to me sometimes.” Comments like this one illuminate the immense mutual respect that characterizes the band—perhaps the single most significant factor behind the Jumpers’ longevity and still-growing appeal.
“Everybody’s so dang agreeable and supportive of each other,” continues Green. “It’s almost like a family, and yet everybody’s so brilliant. It inspires each of us. You can see when Paul [Franklin] does something great on the steel, it makes the fiddle players want to do something just as great. Ego,” he says, “is not a problem with this band.”
“Most of the problems that bands have, we just don’t have that,” agrees Sears. “It’s a rare and wonderful thing. We’ve had many conversations on the bus, and this is the, really, the only time ever that any of us have been in a situation that was this close to perfect.” Taylor, explaining his take, perhaps captures it best: “There’s so much going on besides the music that becomes intrinsically interwoven with the music—it’s like you can’t separate the friendship and the love of each other and the music.”
This is key to understanding The Time Jumpers’ appeal—and the reason why those who understand are jumping at the chance to watch it happen, time and time again.