Vince Gill Makes Time with the Time Jumpers

By Ted Drozdowski

News that Vince Gill had joined The Time Jumpers spread rapidly when it was announced in February. But in fact , the Country Music Hall of Fame member had actually been the group’s “fifth Beatle” since 2007, when he began sitting in with the Western swing ensemble on some of its regular Monday night gigs at Nashville’s Station Inn .

“I love what they do so much that when I had a Monday off, I would sneak down to the club to play a little guitar or mandolin with them,” said Gill. “Then they started calling me whenever one of their guitar players couldn’t make it. Now we’ve just kind of made it official.”

Gill became a full-time Jumper just as the group, long respected by musicians and beloved by a sizable local following, was receiving some long overdue national attention. Released in 2007 by the Crosswind Corporation, their CD/DVD set Jumpin’ Time earned two 2008 Grammy Awards nominations: The Mickey Newbury song “Sweet Memories,” a smoldering tour de force for vocalist Dawn Sears that channels the spirit of Patsy Cline, got a nod for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, and “Fidoodlin’,” a showcase for what was then their three-fiddle section, was in the running for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Since then, The Time Jumpers’ Monday shows have been consistent sellouts. They’ve also been playing at festivals and inspiring fans to write in from around the globe. An edited version of The Station Inn concert on the Jumpin’ Time DVD was broadcast by 125 public television stations throughout the United States. The band has been featured as well on National Public Radio and on the Grand Ole Opry.

Not bad for a group that started a dozen years ago in a Nashville garage as a side project for a clutch of top session and touring side players as a way to blow off steam and get back to some of the roots of Country Music.

Their repertoire treats the jazz-influenced music that Bob Wills and Spade Cooley made in the 1930s and ’40s as a starting point on myriad musical journeys. Destinations can include almost anything from Gene Autry to Ray Price, Hank Locklin to Nat “King” Cole and brand new tunes by the group’s cast of ace musicians and songwriters. This diversity is hardly surprising, given that these players and singers have done sessions and shows for artists that range far beyond the borders of Country, from Megadeth to Barbra Streisand.

Their lineup has changed over the years but currently includes bassist Dennis Crouch, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, fiddler Larry Franklin, rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist “Ranger Doug” Green from Riders In The Sky, lead electric guitarist Andy Reiss, lead/harmony vocalist Dawn Sears, her husband Kenny Sears on fiddle and lead vocals, fiddler and harmony vocalist Joe Spivey, accordionist and harmony vocalist Jeff Taylor and drummer Rick Vanaugh.

“If you’d asked me if I’d ever join another band, I’d have said you’re crazy,” said Gill, an 18-time CMA Awards winner. “But what they do is so much fun. I grew up in Oklahoma, where Bob Wills was king, so the basis of their sound is in my blood. Really, it’s jazz with a Country accent, like Count Basie with fiddles and a steel guitar.

“In The Time Jumpers, I can play differently than on my own records, using a fatter-sounding hollow-body guitar instead of a (Fender) Telecaster and taking solos that are closer to bebop than the chicken pickin’ or string bending I might do on my own songs,” he elaborated. “Plus, being part of the band’s guitar lineup with Paul, Andy and Ranger Doug is just amazing.

“The bottom line is, it’s fun,” Gill continued. “Every single member of The Time Jumpers is a great player who can easily hold their own on any stage. And so many of them are my close friends that becoming a full-time member of the group was more like getting together with my family than joining a band.”

Gill does share a long history with several of his band mates. Dawn Sears has sung backup and toured with him for 12 years. Paul Franklin has also recorded and played live with Gill, as has another new member of the band, Texas fiddle whiz Larry Franklin — no relation to Paul.

But Gill’s strongest and oldest connection to The Time Jumpers was charter member John Hughey — like Paul Franklin, a member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, and for a dozen years a member of Gill’s band before retiring from the road. “John really helped me define the sound of my music, including some big hits like ‘Look at Us,’” Gill said. “To tell the truth, my favorite instrument has always been the pedal steel, and sitting next to John and playing guitar while I watched him play at a little place like The Station Inn on a Monday night was an honor for me.”

Hughey was 73 when he died in 2007; a plaque bearing his photo now hangs on The Station Inn’s wall, to the right of the stage. On a Monday night in April, with that image over his shoulder, Gill sang lead as The Time Jumpers performed “Buttermilk John,” a tribute he’d recently written to his late friend.

Drawing on Dawn Sears’ powerful harmony and the beauty of his own clarion tenor, Gill sang the story of Hughey’s humble upbringing and the magical sounds the master of the “crying steel” style coaxed from his instrument’s assembly of wires, rods, pedals, levers and strings. With the fiddle section providing an angelic chorus, Paul Franklin gently rolled a bar over his own pedal steel and plucked, evoking Hughey’s graceful tones. Gill has recorded this tune with The Time Jumpers for his next solo album.

After an emotional hush followed by a round of robust applause, the band swung hard into Bob Wills’ “Roly Poly,” with Gill swapping licks and smiles with Paul Franklin and Reiss and burning out a fervid solo reminiscent of Charlie Christian’s fiery jazz.

“There are a lot of new musical possibilities for the band with Vince in the fold,” said Paul Franklin. “Besides having another great songwriter, Vince is a great harmony singer and guitar and mandolin player. So we can explore the tradition of the electric mandolin in Texas swing more. Johnny Gimble, who played with Bob Wills, used to swap his guitar for an electric mandolin. Andy, Vince and I are talking about working up three-part guitar harmonies, which I’ve done on sessions but you never really hear live. And between Vince, Dawn, Jeff Taylor, Ranger Doug and Kenny Sears, we can have five-part vocal harmonies if we want.”

Band manager Terry Choate, President of the Crosswind Corporation, said that Gill’s presence “will shine a bright light on the rest of The Time Jumpers, but they’re all capable of holding the spotlight on their own.”

Choate, a music industry veteran who has served as Director, A&R, Capitol Records Nashville, now produces albums and partners with Larry Gatlin as owners of The Magnet Music Group. He had put up his own money as Executive Producer to make 2007’s Jumpin’ Time.

Gill’s commitment is just as serious. “I absolutely plan to be back for every Monday at The Station Inn that I can and look forward to getting on the bus with the band,” he vowed. “I’m probably not the norm for people who have ‘made it,’ but I’ve always been pretty easy about spreading myself around to work on other people’s projects. And I’ve got so much musician in me that when the opportunity to play with great people like this every week came up, well, an opportunity like this is hard to turn down.”

About the Photo:(Photo Provided by CMA Close Up® News Service )
The Time Jumpers gather inside The Station Inn. Jerry Krahn, Vince Gill, Joe Spivey, Kenny Sears, Dawn Sears, David Smith, Paul Franklin, Rick Vaughn and Andy Reiss. photo: Donn Jones

© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

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