The Time Jumpers have never had a hit record, perform in the same small club where they started nine years ago and play songs that are 60 years old.
And yet they’re so hip the stars come out to hear them.
Norah Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Robert Plant, Reba McEntire and Vince Gill have all dropped by their standing Monday night shows at the Station Inn, an unassuming little stone building with plywood floors and mismatched tables and chairs.
The group — all 11 of them — play a jazzy, big band-flavored style of country music called Western swing. The sound is peppy and textured with triple fiddles, twin guitars, accordion, stand-up bass, drums, two female singers and a pedal steel that whines and rumbles like a speeding train.
The musicians — who in their day jobs are crack studio players who’ve worked with such artists as Sting and Faron Young — took turns soloing to polite applause at a recent show. They laughed and winked and enjoyed the crowd, which ranged from a smattering of young kids out with their parents to senior citizens out for a good time. A few danced beside the bar where a large cowbell hung and a handwritten sign advertised a “big thing of popcorn” for a buck.
“Kids, this is all new music. This is what’s going to replace hip-hop,” fiddler and frontman Kenny Sears cracked as the band launched into a spirited take of Nat King Cole’s “Get Your Kicks On (Route 66).”
A wiry man with a cowboy hat and an auctioneer’s command of the crowd, Sears said the idea for the Time Jumpers sprang from backstage jam sessions at the Grand Ole Opry.
“We formed seeking therapy,” he explained. “We all spent our working hours trying to figure out what people wanted to hear on their records and trying to give them that. So we decided we would get together and play fun music and play all we wanted to play, where it would be legal to overplay if we felt like it.”
The band doesn’t tour (11 people traveling the country to play clubs doesn’t make financial sense) and certainly doesn’t play to get rich (Sears said he pockets about $100 a night).
They do it largely because they love Western swing, a musical style that peaked in the ’40s with the folksy Texas band leader Bob Wills. Dubbed the “King of Western Swing,” Wills incorporated jazz, blues, ragtime and Mexican music and filled dance halls and ballrooms across the Southwest.
“It’s wonderful music,” said the band’s rhythm guitarist, “Ranger” Doug Green. “Both feet are planted in tradition, yet you can be as free with it as you want to. We all enjoy hearing what each other come up with.”
‘I kind of run to it’The Time Jumpers found an unlikely home in the Station Inn, a storied bluegrass club where Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and most everyone else in the genre has played or hung out. The place might fit close to 200 people if no one has to get to the bathroom in a hurry, and the yeasty smell of baking bread wafts over from the commercial bake shop across the street.
The band plays the club every Monday night, their only gig of the week. The owner, J.T. Gray, said he couldn’t resist booking them; they were just that good. Judging from the size of his crowds, he’s got to be glad he did.
“We get a lot of tourists, and if they happen to drop in on a Monday night and don’t realize who’s playing, we tell them, ‘You can stay a while and if you don’t like what you hear, we’ll give you your money back.’ I don’t remember ever having to give anybody’s money back,” Gray said.
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Last month, Gill made a guest appearance with the group. The country star sat off to the side playing guitar and singing backup on songs like the Wills’ classics “Roly Polly” and “Sugar Moon.” It was all very low-key. Every so often, a fan would come over and say a few words to him.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find that kind of music,” Gill said afterward. “I’m an Okie, so I grew up in that world. I knew so many of those songs when I was a kid. I kind of run to it because I don’t get to hear it anymore.”
Western swing waned in the ’50s as television overtook dancing as popular entertainment. But it has enjoyed revivals over the years and can still be heard in some contemporary country songs and in regional acts like The Time Jumpers, who’ve released a few CDs and a DVD and have a Public Television special in the works for next year.
It’s hard to imagine a more skilled band playing it. Pick a country or bluegrass artist — past or present — and it’s a good bet someone in the group has worked with them. They’re so adroit they don’t even rehearse. When they change or add songs, they simply map out the arrangements verbally before they step on stage.
While Western swing is their forte, they mix in jazz standards, country shuffles and cowboy tunes.
“Anything that’s fun is our criteria,” Sears said, “fun and therapeutic.”