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The Time Jumpers

By John Lupton, November 2012

Way, way back in the last century – in 1998, to be exact – an assemblage of Nashville's primo session players and sidemen were looking for a way to kill time between turns on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. Among them was Kenny Sears, a veteran fiddler whose resume included stints with Mel Tillis, Dottie West, Ray Price and Faron Young.

"We used to get together in the dressing room backstage at the Opry and have these jam sessions that went on all night long," Sears recalls, "and we were having so much fun with that, the Opry stars would make time to stop by there, sing a song or two with us – we kind of found some magic there, something that was really fun."

The Time Jumpers play

That magic soon became The Time Jumpers, a Music City phenomenon of now a decade and a half, establishing themselves as the "ultimate club band" and playing to standing room Monday night crowds at the venerable Station Inn.

In addition to Kenny Sears and his sultry, alto-voiced wife Dawn Sears, the crew includes America's Favorite Cowboy "Ranger Doug" Green, pedal steel icon Paul Franklin, Billy Thomas on drums, Andy Reiss on guitar, Jeff Taylor on accordion and Dennis Crouch on bass. Joining Kenny in the string section are Joe Spivey and Larry Franklin (no relation to Paul), giving the band a powerful trio of fiddlers as the core of the band's sound.

A live release, "Jumpin' Time" came out in 2007 and garnered a pair of Grammy nominations, but it wasn't until September that their first studio effort, a self-titled release hit the stores.

The Time Jumpers sound came about more or less organically, Sears says. "Naturally, being musicians we gravitated toward the music that's a little more demanding to play, you know, the Western Swing stuff and kind of jazzy things. And then, of course, we all miss the traditional country sound that you don't hear much in the mainstream anymore. "

Laughing, he continues, "It really started out as a therapy session, you know? It's just nice to be able to play what you want to play, and play it the way you want to play it without the constraints of having to try to please whoever you're trying to make a record for. "

Noting that the roster has grown to 11, Sears adds, "And of course now, we have Vince Gill in the band the last 2 years, and he's been a great addition...He really is just a picker at heart, you know, what he's really always just wanted to do is be a great guitar player, and certainly he is that. But he brings a lot to the band."

Despite the varied touring and session schedules among the members, Sears says that while it's not uncommon to need to a sub or two on a given Monday, most of the time all 11 are on hand and ready to go. "We have really good subs," though, he says, "and if one or two guys are missing, it's hardly noticeable."

The Monday sessions are full-blown shows, Sears points out, and not rehearsals, but at the level these folks play at, it comes together pretty quickly.

"If you showed up to sit in, we'd be wingin' it on stage. But when we do have a chance to get together and rehearse, which is very, very seldom, we pretty much talk it through, you know, and then just play it. Most of the arrangements that we're doing right now started out as, someone came in on a Monday night and said, ‘Hey, there's this old Bob Wills song, or whatever that I really like, I'd like to do it.' - ‘Okay, what key?' "

"It's pretty spontaneous, most all of our arrangements that we play right now weren't well thought out, they were just done kind of on the fly. Then the next week, we...have a pretty good idea of what we're gonna do with it, then the lick that somebody spontaneously came up with would become part of the arrangement. Then we might talk about it, and say ‘Hey, if we did this lick here or that lick there, that would be even cooler.' So mostly, it's a verbal rehearsal."

Gill and Green are prominent in the band's vocals, of course, but Thomas, Spivey and Kenny Sears chip in on the male side as well. As the only woman in the band, though, Dawn Sears stands out on heart-rending country torch songs like So Far Apart, one of the brightest jewels on the new Rounder disc. Kenny Sears recalls gigging in Las Vegas with Mel Tillis in 1986.

"We were at The Sahara. Dawn had her own band, and she was working the lounge there. One night after the show I was sitting at a blackjack table, killing time, and I heard her band start, and I heard her singing. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."

He pauses to laugh and continues, "I quit playing cards in the middle of a winning streak just to go see. So I went over there, and then for the next several nights I just made it a habit to stop by there after our show and listen to her. She had a little four-piece band. She was playing drums and fronting the band from behind the drums and doing all that great singing...She kept on coming to Nashville to see me, she says I kept sending her home – which is not really true. She would come to visit, then go home, then come to visit. Finally," he laughs, "she just quit going home."

Talking about his fellow Time Jumper Doug Green, Sears speculates there may have been a time, possibly back in Green's teenage years as a member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, that he was just Doug Green, but after more than a quarter-century fronting Riders In The Sky, "Ever since I've known him he's been Ranger Doug, and there's just no doubt about that. He comes in on Monday night and he still has his hat and boots and guitar, and he steps up to the mike when it's his turn, and he may sing an old Bob Wills song, or he may do some yodeling. I'm not so sure he could step out of that character now, that's who he is."

With the Monday sessions continuing to be among the hottest tickets in town – reservations strongly recommended – the band made the decision in the spring to leave the Station Inn for a larger venue, the 3rd & Lindsley Bar and Grill.

"We really didn't want to move. We were forced to move because of the limited space and turning away just too many people. So now we have a 500-seat club, and we're already back to people making reservations to make sure they get a seat, and oftentimes we have a lot of standing room people. So it's been a really good move for us...you know, we'll always miss the Station Inn, we'll always have fond memories of that. But we outgrew it, and that's a good thing."

With the new album generating more acclaim – not to mention fans – are there thoughts on a follow-up album? "Oh absolutely," Sears concludes, "We're already talking about it."