The story that follows may incite envy in the hearts of some up-and-coming, on-trend bands trying to build followings and land deals in Nashville while youth is still on their side. Especially the part about The Time Jumpers finding an unusually faithful crowd and a supportive label by kinda sorta going about it all wrong. But anybody would find it hard to root against this band, considering the backgrounds of the 11 players and singers in the lineup — all of which involve serious dues-paying in A-list studio and stage supporting roles (that applies even to Vince Gill back in his pre-blockbuster balladeer days) — and the phenomenally jazzy, virtuosic show they've been putting on every Monday night for the past 14 years.
Earlier this summer, the Jumpers proved their ability to draw by moving their weekly residency from The Station Inn to the considerably roomier 3rd & Lindsley, and this month, Rounder Records is releasing their self-titled studio debut.
Now a disclaimer about the band's success from bandleader Kenny Sears, one of the group's three fiddlers. "We weren't trying to have careers [in this band]," he says. "We didn't expect that at our age there would be any possibility of that to start with. So we really ... started out doing it for [what we think are] the right reasons."
Any musician with a gig churning out streamlined commercial fare to a click probably has some other style they'd like to be playing. The difference with the Jumpers is that they willed their ideal music universe into being. Says Sears, "We said, 'OK, we've got something here that's really fun to do and that others have talked about. But let's actually do it. And let's do it until it stops being fun, and then we'll agree to just break up and go our own way.' "
The whole thing started with bassist Dennis Crouch and fiddler Hoot Hester jamming in Hester's garage, then expanded into Jimmy C. Newman's dressing room backstage at the Opry, eventually taking over The Station Inn on the one night a week the club had historically been closed. "In the beginning, sometimes we outnumbered the audience," chuckles Sears. "But we really didn't care. We weren't there to make money. And when you're working for the door and you have an 11-piece band, you're never gonna make money."
When Sears took the reins after Hester left, he started getting the word out — soon there were butts in the seats and high-profile guests showing up to sit in. They've never had trouble finding musicians, either to sub or to complete the lineup, and it's now solidified: fiddlers Joe Spivey, Larry Franklin and Sears; Ranger Doug Green, Andy Reiss and Gill on guitar; Paul Franklin on steel; accordion player Jeff Taylor; Billy Thomas on drums; Crouch on bass; and vocal duties carried by Dawn Sears, Gill and several other members at one point or another.
Part of their enjoyment comes from a sense of ownership — it's a thoroughly egalitarian endeavor, and everybody's showcased. But there's also the music they play: mostly Western swing, with some trad country thrown in.
Says Sears, "For us, it offers the opportunity to play in sections, the ensemble part of it, it offers the opportunity for improvisation and it offers the complexity to keep our interest. So originally we were 99 percent a Western swing band. We've sort of grown into doing more traditional country with the addition of Dawn and Vince. They're just such great, great singers, both of 'em, and what a shame to have them on the stage and not let them do a ballad and make everybody cry, which they do — us included."
The Jumpers ventured into album-making in Gill's home studio — well before Rounder or any of the major labels that came calling were courting them — with their usual lack of agenda. Sears says, "We recorded a couple of things and Vince said, 'You know, we really should be doing as much original stuff as we can. Who knows what might come of this?' Because we realized that what we were doing was sounding pretty good and that the rest of the world might be interested. But still we had no plans of trying to get it on a label or anything. We were just recording mostly for posterity."