New project: Liner Notes for The Time Jumpers

Suppose you’ve been granted just one night of your life in Nashville, and that you are wise enough to make the most of it. You’re looking for the most Nashville thing in Nashville – the cosmic opposite of Applebee’s and a movie – a life memory you couldn’t make anywhere else.

You probably see where this is going; you should see The Time Jumpers.

We often struggle to find the quintessence of a place and time, and Nashville has its enduring enigmas. But if you ask me what’s been most exciting and fine about Music City in the 2000s, the reign of The Time Jumpers at the Station Inn would be a top contender. They are all exceptional musicians, brought together by the camaraderie that’s inextricable from being a professional picker here. They play country music incarnate at a time when few do, revitalizing canonical songs and adding new ones to the repertoire. They are also a sophisticated jazz ensemble that enthralls with masterly improvisation and a sonic luxuriousness that enriched the era of Duke Ellington and Bob Wills.

Their skills may be exceeded only by the purity of their motivation.

Every Time Jumper has plenty of work; nobody needed to show up and play every Monday night in a quaint neon-lit bar for not quite 200 people. They truly have pursued and refined this band over more than a decade for sheer musical fulfillment. And that unrestrained pleasure comes through on every track of this recording debut on Rounder Records.

There isn’t space here to properly catalog every member’s credentials and contributions. A good place to start though is fiddler Kenny Sears and his wife, Dawn. Kenny is generally the onstage emcee for the group. He blends fluidly with Larry Franklin and Joe Spivey in the triple fiddle attack that distinguishes the band’s robust and rapturous sound. He and Dawn both sing, he with amiable swing and she with a special power and nuance that regularly draws chills, tears and rousing ovations.

Then there’s the rhythm section, with rhythm in all caps and italics: drummer Billy Thomas locks in with Dennis Crouch, the hottest acoustic bass player in Music City, having toured with Robert Plant and other rock stars. Elegant strokes on a vintage Stromberg arch-top guitar emanate from a seated man in a cowboy hat at the back of the bandstand, except when he – “Ranger” Doug Green - steps forward to sing a lead, as he does here on his own “Ridin’ On The Rio.” And while Green is a Grammy-winning front-man in world-famous Riders in the Sky, his star power means little in this ensemble. That’s also clear in the understated addition of Vince Gill to the lineup in the past couple of years. Yes, the superstar is there for nearly every gig. Let there be no confusion; this is a band, and he’s in it.

As are three more remarkable instrumentalists. Paul Franklin has been Nashville’s top session pedal steel player for 20 years, and he speaks of his Time Jumpers spot as an honor. Andy Reiss, a studio veteran who takes most lead guitar parts, feels like Nashville’s Wes Montgomery. My personal favorite “voice” in the group comes from Jeff Taylor’s accordion. Crystal clear and cutting, his reedy tone and liquid flow are simply spellbinding. His solo in “On The Outskirts of Town” is brief but immaculately constructed, as are his dancing responses to the vocals. But the same could be said about everyone here. When Reiss, Gill and Franklin begin trading fours, it’s the most liberated and enthralling sound in Music City.

A live band with only the rare gig beyond their Monday night home base, The Time Jumpers have released two live albums and a concert DVD, but this is their studio debut. Vince Gill’s home studio proved the ideal space, and the band set up in a circle with no isolated parts and thus no chances to fix mistakes. These takes are as real as performances get. Gill also contributed five original songs to the project, including “Three Sides To Every Story,” a timeless country ballad. Fiddler Franklin composed the album-opening instrumental “Texoma Bound.” Kenny Sears wrote himself a smooth vocal part and the world a new standard with “Nothing But The Blues.” And it’s especially refreshing to hear one band member, specifically Dawn Sears, interpret a song by another, as she does with serenity and melancholy on Gill’s “Faint Of Heart.”

Alas, the days of The Time Jumpers at the Station Inn are in the history books. The band, which barely fit on that little stage, has moved to 3rd & Lindsley, a larger Nashville watering hole, for its Monday night shows. But the sound is excellent, and the ethos and soul remain as vibrant as ever. This album should tide you over until you get to make the pilgrimage to see them. Even if only for one night.