The Nashville music community was deeply saddened to hear the news last Friday that one of the city’s—indeed, the world’s—finest traditional country singers had passed. Dawn Sears, featured vocalist with The Time Jumpers and longtime member of Vince Gill’s band, died late on Thursday, Dec. 11 after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. Sears fought the disease with the same kind of strength and spirit that fueled her world-class singing, which was admired by everyone who ever heard or worked with her. “In country music there is only a handful of women singers that really destroy you, and she is one of them,” said Vince Gill, assessing Sears’ extraordinary talent in a story about Sears that WKRN News presented earlier this year.
Sears, whose vocal turns with The Time Jumpers were emotional high points of every show, possessed the kind of Patsy Cline-like “full-body” voice that seemed to come up from under the floorboards and radiate from her every pore, but with an earthiness more in keeping with stone-country singers such as Connie Smith, and all with a baffling appearance of ease. Her Grammy-nominated performance of “Sweet Memories” from the live 2007 DVD/CD Jumpin’ Time is a particularly effective example, though it would be difficult to choose a single standout performance. “Anything she sang was amazing; she couldn’t help it,” says former Time Jumpers manager Terry Choate, who both conceived and executive-produced the DVD of the Jumpers during their now-legendary residency at the Station Inn. Choate, who described Sears’ singing as “technically perfect,” proceeded to attempt to explain what he conceded is nearly inexplicable. “I’m not sure exactly how to put this,” he begins, “but you don’t have to worry about the song being taken care of. She instinctively knows exactly what to sing, and what amount of emotion, and I’m thinking that’s a God thing. Nobody has to tell her what to do. She’s just instinctively that great of a singer.”
Choate’s present-tense references to the departed singer serve to affirm that Dawn Sears leaves behind a small but rich recorded and filmed legacy. This includes such permanent treasures as the Jumpin’ Time DVD/CD collection, The Jumpers’ self-titled Rounder Records CD and a wide selection of now-bittersweet YouTube videos of the band in performance featuring Dawn at the mic, surrounded by the affection and respect of her comrades, with her fiddler/vocalist husband Kenny never far from her side, smiling. Yet another important keepsake remains in the form of the definitive, self-titled country album Sears released in 2002, featuring many self-penned songs and giving her the last word on her musical identity in a way her earlier major-label efforts never quite managed to accomplish, through no fault of her own. (The CD is available at dawnsears.com and can be streamed on Spotify.)
In addition to the body of work and many sweet memories is the singer’s recent fundraising triumph, the Dawn Sears & Friends benefit show, which was held on Nov. 30 in her hometown of Gallatin, with guests including Reba McEntire and Vince Gill. A testament to not only the high regard in which Sears was held by her fellow singers and musicians but also to the indefatigable spirit she displayed even in her final days, the event raised more than $100,000 for lung cancer research. (Donations, which go directly to the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, can still be made at dawnsearsandfriends.com.)
Choate remembers becoming “enamored with [Sears’] voice” in the early 1990s, when she was making her first bid at solo success on Warner Bros. Records. Choate, a song plugger at the time, went on to pitch songs to Sears, though he never got a song cut by her, and Sears never got the major-label breakthrough she once hoped for. Still, he believes that Sears, unlike many other country music hopefuls, ultimately found fulfillment. “I’m sure she was frustrated [about her failed attempts at solo success], because when you sing like Dawn, you’re bound to know how wonderfully you sing. Plus, everybody would tell her. It was no secret that she was a well-kept secret,” he says.
“When she joined The Time Jumpers, I think she found her satisfaction, musically, in that band. It’s a lot of work to try to launch a career and be a star,” observes the longtime industry pro, “and for whatever reason, not very many people make it to stardom. The cards don’t fall right. She seemed content with The Time Jumpers, especially when Vince joined the band, ’cause they had a long working relationship.” Indeed, it was an inspiration to watch Sears and Gill working together as equals in The Time Jumpers, and to witness the musical bond and intuition in their performances (such as the Jumpers’ Opry performance of “Someone Had to Teach You”).
“The thing that I always noticed about Dawn,” says Choate, “was how much she valued friendships. If you were her friend, she had your back. She cared a lot about her family, but also her acquaintances and friends outside of the business. The fact that she valued friendships so much,” he says, “made her real nice to be around. As an artist,” he adds, “she was one of a kind.”
Sports and Entertainment Nashville both joins with and extends sincere condolences to the family, friends, fans and music-industry colleagues who mourn the passing of Dawn Sears.
In a recent issue of Sports & Entertainment Nashville, The Improbable Ascension of The Time Jumpers was explored.