The Time Jumpers formed in ’98 as a lark for a group of A-list Nashville sidemen who loved Western swing. Eighteen years later, they’ve become a local institution, energetically presenting the vintage music of the Southwest and California with forays into Texas honky-tonk. Instrumental breaks are fast and furious, and nearly every member sings.
The 10-piece lineup features three guitarists. Vince Gill and Andy Reiss play electric, Riders in the Sky’s “Ranger Doug” Green, a vintage archtop connoisseur, handles acoustic rhythm. Alongside Paul Franklin’s pedal steel are three fiddles, accordion/keyboard, bass, and drums.
They were 11 pieces until vocalist Dawn Sears, Gill’s regular backup singer and wife of Time Jumpers fiddler Kenny Sears, died of cancer in 2014. Kid Sister is a tribute of sorts. It includes her final recordings with the band and Gill’s heartfelt original farewell ballad, similar to the elegies he’s penned for others.
The band’s flawless old-school musicianship invigorates both newer and older tunes. “My San Antonio Rose,” penned by the late country-jazz composer Freddy Powers, is a buoyant Dawn/Kenny Sears vocal duet, supercharged by Franklin’s Buddy Emmons-like steel and blazing breaks from Reiss and accordionist Jeff Taylor. “Miss You” was a final duet with Gill. On “All Aboard,” Franklin, Gill, and Reiss channel the dazzling ’60s country-jazz instrumentals of guitarist Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton’s pedal steel as members of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.
Fiddler Billy Thomas sings “Honky Tonkin’” in the swinging mode of Hank Thompson. Things turn bluer on Gill’s “Sweet Rowena,” with its B.B. King-style solo and “Blue Highway Blues,” sung by drummer Billy Thomas. Both “Empty Rooms,” sung by Green, and “This Heartache,” with a Kenny Sears vocal, effortlessly revive the venerable ’50s and ’60s shuffle sound of Ray Price and his Cherokee Cowboys, Franklin paying homage to that band’s steel greats, Emmons and Jimmy Day.
Two numbers hail from western swing’s heyday. Fiddler Joe Spivey sings the bluesy “I Hear You Talkin’,” which Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys first performed in the ’40s western film Wyoming Hurricane. With Green doing the vocal, “Bloodshot Eyes,” the 1950 Hank Penny hit that became an R&B classic for Wynonie Harris, out-swings Penny’s original, with precise ensemble work by the entire group.
The album’s 14 songs achieves much by honoring a fallen member and explores western swing and honky-tonk in ways that reaffirm its timeless, durable sound. On the “Time Jumpers Theme,” Gill, the song’s composer, enthusiastically sings each member’s praises and defines the band as an entity “where country music lives again.” Indeed it does.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s January ’17 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.