Country and Western music will forever be known as the sound that raised heartbreak to an art form. It was a soundtrack readily suitable for taking a swig off a longneck before heading off into a sobbing spell.
Western swing, on the other hand, inhabits the opposite universe. It might just be the cheeriest sound in the cosmos. Song lyrics and story lines occasionally flirt with the blues. But when multiple fiddles, spry guitar and animated pedal steel collectively sweep alongside schooled but equally playful vocals, the effect is unavoidably stimulating.
In short, when Western swing sings, there is simply no way you can wind up in a bad mood.
“It won’t let you feel down at all, will it?” Kenny Sears asked.
And he should know. For nearly 15 years, the fiddler has been at the forefront of a troupe called The Time Jumpers, an after-hours sanctuary band where some of Nashville’s top pickers brush off the more contemporary and commercial demands of their 9-to-5 music careers for weekly performances centered around the Western swing popularized in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
But after two albums, both of which earned Grammy nominations, Sears decided it was time to prioritize the band and send it on the road. That’s no easy feat when your group is 11 members strong and includes a few celebs unaccustomed (but eager) to taking back seat roles in an ensemble that’s not exclusively their own.
“There’s so many of us and we’re all very busy with our own careers,” said Sears, who will lead The Time Jumpers in concert Tuesday night at the Lexington Opera House. “But it seems to be kind of shifting over a little bit now and looking like maybe The Time Jumpers project might end up being something a little bit more than fun and games.”
Among the celebs in the current Time Jumpers lineup are vocalist Dawn Sears (Kenny’s wife), steel guitar great Paul Franklin, bassist and frequent T Bone Burnett collaborator Dennis Crouch, and vocalist/guitarist/Riders in the Sky frontman Ranger Doug Green. There is a big leaguer, too: vocalist/guitarist and multiple Grammy winner Vince Gill.
“We’re fortunate enough to have, in my opinion, two of the greatest singers in the world in the band. I’m talking about Vince and Dawn. I think it just doesn’t get any better than that, vocal-wise. So I’m spoiled. I can’t imagine doing this without them.”
For Sears, Western swing has always been at hand. A Texas native, he grew up on a farm in southern Oklahoma and was surrounded by the swing sounds of Spade Cooley, Hank Penny and especially Bob Wills. Having received a full scholarship from North Texas State University, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music by 1975 and performed as a violinist with the Dallas Symphony. But the lure of the Western swing music he loved trumped classical instruction, so off Sears went to Nashville, to play in the Grand Ole Opry.
“We didn’t listen to classical music much in my family household,” he said. “I was looking for a fiddle teacher when I was a kid, and there weren’t any. So I ended up with a classical violin teacher. That’s how I got introduced to classical music. I learned to love that, too, along the way. I spent some time in the symphony and all that. But the real roots were always in Western swing and traditional country shuffles. That was always my first love.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of college and get to Nashville and start playing that kind of music. Fortunately, for me, I got here at a time when that music was still being played. I moved to Nashville in 1975, so my first job was with Faron Young. I got to work with Ray Price, Mel Tillis and lots of people that were still doing that music. So it was a wonderful thing for me.
“Then there were several years that went by when the styles changed. You know, I like the modern country music, but it just doesn’t touch my heart like traditional music. So when we had the idea to put together this band and play swing, it was like Christmas for me.”
Interest (and the Grammy nominations) for The Time Jumpers’ 2012 self-titled sophomore album prompted the current tour. Beyond that, Sears is confident that the band’s profile will continue to grow. There are obstacles, though. Dawn Sears is undergoing treatment for lung cancer (she still plans on performing with the band in Lexington). There also are the careers of the other members to consider. But Sears said interest is strong enough to dictate that swing time for The Time Jumpers is far from over.
“I always wished for a career where I could play the music I love with people I admire and then grow old on the Grand Ole Opry. And for quite a while, I’ve gotten to do that. And then here comes along The Time Jumpers, and I just never even dreamed of that. This is just the best of the best.”
The Time Jumpers perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St. Tickets are $45.50 and $55.50. Call 1-800-745-3000, (859) 233-3535, or go to Ticketmaster.com.