The five stages of grief, as first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are the emotional states of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But for the members of the Time Jumpers, who experienced an inordinate amount of grief following longtime singer Dawn Sears’ December 2014 death from lung cancer, there has been an essential sixth stage in coming to terms with the loss: humor.
With a 20-year history, the group has had its share of losses. Founding member Hoot Hester died last month, while charter group member John Hughey passed away in 2007 at age 73. But it was Sears’ untimely death that inspired much of the material on the group’s latest LP, the poignantly titled Kid Sister. A lively but touching blend of Western swing and classic country, Kid Sister not only pays tribute to Sears and her mighty voice, it also offers her bandmates the opportunity to grieve, turning a dark, sad chapter into one of the sweetest goodbye letters captured on record. (Listen to the album’s premiere below.) But where one or more Time Jumpers are gathered, laughter, it seems, is not far away.
Founded in 1998, the Time Jumpers’ vast stage and studio expertise on their various stringed instruments represents hundreds of years of cumulative experience. Gill’s is not the only recognizable name among them either: the group consists of cowboy singer-songwriter and guitarist “Ranger Doug” Green (of Riders in the Sky); fiddle player and singer – and Dawn’s widower – Kenny Sears; Steel Guitar Hall of Fame member (and current CMA award nominee) Paul Franklin; fiddlers Joe Spivey and Larry Franklin; drummer and vocalist Billy Thomas; accordion and piano player Jeff Taylor; guitarist Andy Reiss; and bassist Brad Albin. The band’s third LP (their second Rounder Records release), Kid Sister pays loving tribute to the “girl singer” whose renditions of hardcore honky-tonk tunes, American standards and Western swing classics made her an integral part of the group.
“There was a real sadness that prevailed over it, deep down,” Gill tells Rolling Stone Country. Seated with Kenny Sears and “Ranger Doug” Green on plush couches in the middle of the studio where Kid Sister was recorded, Gill notes that the mood may not have permeated the way the group played and sang, but they also knew, even as Sears’ health took a turn for the worse, that they had no plans to shelve the recording.
“We fought [along] with her and hoped for her and all that stuff,” Gill explains. “Then we said, ‘Well, we’ve got to go back and have at it.’ We all felt like it was what she would want us to do. So we did, with our big boy boots on as best we could, out of respect for what we thought she would really want. It would have been real easy to pack this band in, but she didn’t want that.”
By the summer of 2014, Sears had lost her voice but she had already contributed an early tracking vocal to the album’s first cut, “My San Antonio Rose,” written by the late Freddy Powers. Gill envisioned the remaining audio as a chance for Sears and her husband of 27 years to sing together on record one final time.
“Kenny would have this great remembrance of the last song she sang as a duet with his bride,” he says. “That’s kind of beautiful. We have something that would have passed muster with her. She was tough sell on herself. It was to her level of greatness and I knew we were fine.”
Another of the affecting songs on the album is “I Miss You,” which Gill originally wrote with Ashley Monroe and initially recorded for his Guitar Slinger LP, but found it didn’t fit.
“It had Dawn on it,” he recalls of the track. “It was gorgeous but it just didn’t fit the record. After we lost Dawn, we made the duet up of ‘My San Antonio Rose’ with Kenny and Dawn and I thought, I have another piece of Dawn’s voice captured here. I had a couple of acoustic guitars and a click track and her voice. So, I rewrote the lyrics. Before it was a song about a breakup, but I rewrote the song from more of Kenny’s perspective of losing his bride. It had a purpose. It had her voice and it was a magical stretch of time when we were all in here playing and we could hear her voice again.”
As with anyone who loses a longtime partner or spouse, Sears has days that are sweeter – or sadder – than others, but is grateful for the years they had together.
“That’s the place where I’ve been trying to get to,” he notes. “Because I can’t bring her back, can’t change anything that happened. But I can be grateful for the time we had.”
To come to grips with his own profound sense of loss, Gill wrote the LP’s extraordinary title track, which closes the record on a heartbreaking note.
“It’s been a pretty great way for me to grieve in my life, to write songs,” he reveals. “I get to put in songs what’s tearing me up. It’s that simple. All you have to do is tell the truth. That’s what Haggard and all those guys will teach you. That’s what people are craving to hear. I started writing that song right after she left us. I had to. It meant too much to me.”
Yet, channeling his grief into words and music has long been a soothing balm for the singer-songwriter, who came to terms with the 1993 death of his brother by finishing a song he had originally written after the 1989 loss of his friend, country singer Keith Whitley. In addition to its success as a hit single, the elegant “Go Rest High on That Mountain” has been performed by Gill at hundreds of funerals and memorial services, many of which were final farewells for his fellow Grand Ole Opry members.
While Dawn Sears’ angelic voice was the key factor to which audiences responded in terms of her overall persona, her husband says she was “just one of the guys – on the bus, in the studio or onstage. She was an instigator. She was always trying to crack people up, make somebody lose it in the middle of a song. She was always whispering something to whoever was next to her – they got an earful. But you couldn’t print any of it!”
As the three musicians collapse into fits of laughter at their treasured memories of their “kid sister,” they confirm what Sears says of his wife and bandmate, which also underscores the reality that this LP – steeped in sadness as it may be – is still a raucous, joyful celebration of a style of music that shaped the separate experiences of all of the Time Jumpers.
For singer-guitarist Green, it was a less-than-stellar career as a bluegrass musician which led to a day job in the reference library at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where he met record collector and historian Bob Pinson.
“He was the world’s expert on Western swing,” Green explains. “We had the ‘Old-time Disc of the Day.’ We would go back on a break and play two or three Western swing records. Of course I just fell in love with it because I love swing guitar anyway. That was my first experience.”
That exposure led to his attendance at a Western swing festival in Tulsa in 1974, where Green met the musicians who had played with the most influential Western swing bandleader of all time, Bob Wills.
“He couldn’t be at the festival,” Green recalls of the iconic musician who had suffered a stroke a year earlier and would die in 1975. “After hours and hours of beer-drinking music, they had booked the Sons of the Pioneers on the show. I heard all that music about the outdoors, the open ranges, the yodeling, I loved that. That’s really where Riders in the Sky started. Just from being so inspired at that festival.”
Sears, who was born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma, was just 11 years old when he was hired to play fiddle in the staff band at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, a job that often found him backing Nashville and Grand Ole Opry stars who came to town.
“When that was over, in 1966, I went to work with a guy named Billy Gray who was Hank Thompson’s bandleader,” Sears says. “I sort of grew up with it. Even though I was going to North Texas State studying classical and playing in the symphony, on the weekends I played swing and honky-tonk music to pay the rent. It was a good way to grow up.”
Gill’s musical DNA was basically predetermined by his Oklahoma raising. Ballrooms including Cain’s in Tulsa, the Diamond in Oklahoma City, and the Cotillion in nearby Wichita, Kansas, were key destinations for fans of live music and dancing, influenced as much by country music as they were swing and jazz, melding steel guitar and fiddles with big band-style arrangements.
“As I was growing up, trying to learn how to play the guitar, my best friend was a kid named Benny Garcia whose father was a great jazz guitar player, great swing guitar player who played with Bob and Johnny Wills,” Gill remembers. “That’s where I got my first taste of what that music sounded like and felt like as a little kid. It seems hereditary in a way. It just feels like part of my complete bloodline. I love all the B’s: the Beatles, Buck [Owens] and Bob Wills.”
With an estimated 50 to 100 Nashville regulars showing up at the Time Jumpers’ Monday night 3rd & Lindsley residency, and somewhere around that same number of out-of-town tourists, Sears and his bandmates have also noted the growing number of young spectators, many of whom are studying music locally.
“There are students from Belmont University that come over and they think we’re doing something new,” he says. “But we also have the older crowd there that remembers it. There’s one professor at Belmont who for a while was assigning it. His students had to come hear the Time Jumpers.”
“‘ …And then another old guy got up and then another old guy got up. It was really cool,'” Gill jokes, imagining how the students’ essays might read.
In addition to the fun they have performing, the group members also get to revel in the unexpected as they invite other musicians – of both the seasoned pro and decidedly amateur variety – to sit in with them.
“What gets me is here’s a Western swing band and [someone thinking], ‘I’m going to sit in with Western swing band’ and they’ll do an original song that nobody knows,” Green adds. But just as there can be the ridiculous, there is also the sublime. For Green, that was the night the Browns, siblings Jim Ed, Bonnie and Maxine, sang with them, marking one of the final times the legendary trio performed together in public.
“Then you get tricked by a foreigner who tells you he’s the best so-and-so from Sweden,” Gill notes. “You let them get up and they’re not very good at all. But that’s part of the fun. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. I like to see a stage that’s welcoming. You don’t have to be of a certain ilk to be up there, there’s none of that. I love the spontaneity of the who-knows-what-you’re-going-to-get. Some nights it’s hysterical and you’re just over there trying not to fall apart laughing.”
“We usually find out at the same time the crowd does,” Sears deadpans. “We have fun. The crowd has fun because of it and people think it’s a great show. But it isn’t really a show at all. We just play music. It’s amazing how many people are hungry for that. A lot of people are tired of flash pots and light shows and costume changes and all that. I tell the crowd we won’t have any of that, and we probably won’t have a costume change. . . unless something happens. We’re all getting older, ya know.”
Once again, the group’s infectious laughter fills the studio, as the sixth stage of their collective grief serves as a reminder that somewhere their kid sister is laughing louder and longer than any of them.