The fiddlers three discuss what they play and their fiddle backgrounds
It’s Monday night in Nashville, around 8:30. After driving all over the neighborhood and finally tracking down a place to park, you’ve found an empty stool at the bar inside 3rd and Lindsley. The lights are dim, so you can’t miss the neon beer signs beckoning from above, where balcony seating wraps around most of the room.
The room is full—unusual for most venues this early in the week. Even stranger, you could point your PBR bottle at anyone in this room—whether at a table on the sprawling split-level floor or at the “friends of the band” balcony section or even in the crowd bunched around the merch table—and odds are you’d be looking at a well-known singer, studio musician, or Music Row executive. Of course, these people are often out and about, scouting new talent or meeting up with some other honcho to do business.
Not tonight, though. Mondays at 3rd and Lindsley are not about working. They’re about sitting back, popping a top, and listening to one of Nashville’s musical treasures as it continues its long, ongoing weekly residency.
One by one, members of the Time Jumpers amble up to the stage, pick up an instrument, play a few notes, repeat “one, two, one, two” into a microphone, and then exit back to the green room as the FOH engineer adjusts his levels.
Then, at 9 PM on the dot, all ten of them file in. Accordionist/keyboardist Jeff Taylor, beneath the ball cap, is on the far left, just in front of “Ranger” Doug Green, country music historian, raconteur, world-class yodeler, and leader of the celebrated Riders in the Sky. Way over on the right, perennial Academy of Country Music–award winner Paul Franklin sits at his steel guitar, flanked by Vince Gill on the left—wearing a Nashville Predators jersey, beach shorts, and flip-flops on this particular night—and fellow guitar whiz Andy Reiss.
Three fiddlers stand near the center of the stage, in front of bassist Brad Albin and drummer Billy Thomas. Larry Franklin is on the left, hair cut short, in a black T-shirt. Next to him is Joe Spivey, from Shreveport, Louisiana, dressed as usual in his worn-denim jacket and railroader’s cap. And on the right is the group’s leader and emcee, Kenny Sears, a former member of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, who traded in his classical repertoire years ago for the country music that unites all the musicians in this group.
You hear the groove immediately as Sears—dressed in a neat ensemble of trim jeans, tucked-in, pressed gray shirt, big gleaming belt buckle, and cowboy hat—does a quick count-in to “Undecided.” And the Time Jumpers are off and running, retaining 1930s jazz bandleader Chick Webb’s original infectious groove, while adding elements that identify the classic sound of Western swing.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. His innovation was conceptually simple: Combine the feel of country music with the rhythms and improvisational freedoms championed by Benny Goodman and his contemporaries.
Though Wills also carried a small horn section, he often had multiple fiddles as well, capable of playing the riffs, chordal passages, and solos that trumpets, trombones, and saxophones handled in the big bands.
The Time Jumpers have run with Wills’ innovations right into the national spotlight. They’ve been welcomed into the studio for sessions with Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire, and other headliners. Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, and Sheryl Crow are among the notables who have performed with them at the Monday night gigs. Two of their albums, Jumpin’ Time in 2007 and The Time Jumpers in 2012, each earned two Grammy nominations.
They’ve come a long way since 1998, when a group of session players first got together to jam through some of the tunes that now form much of their core repertoire. And today, they enjoy unique dual status as local favorites as well as ambassadors of a hallowed musical tradition.
In the fashion of Nashville studio aces, the Time Jumpers have never used written charts. “Instead of having one person who arranges everything, we do it by ear,” Sears explains. “Usually somebody comes in one night and says, ‘Hey, I just thought about this old tune. Let’s try it.’
“The fiddles will sketch out a part. The guitars will decide what they’re going to do. We’ll set a tempo and key. And then we just go out there and play it on the spot onstage. After three or four times of doing it, an arrangement evolves.
“We have a system,” Sears continues.
“I’ll play the lead, Joe plays the harmony part above me, and Larry plays a harmony part below. That’s what we do when somebody sits in and we have to play a song we’ve never played before.”
Strong solo chops are essential for every member of a Western swing band. That too comes naturally to the fiddle section, though some had to master it after they’d already developed as players. Franklin, for example, tore through all the major fiddle contests in Texas as a child, winning a world championship title at 16. However, improvisation wasn’t required in this world.
“What mattered was the way you sounded, the feel, and the complicated aspects of the songs you played,” Franklin explains. “You wouldn’t just play a simple song. You’d play a song that had multiple parts in different registers. The judges would usually ask you to play a breakdown, a waltz, and a tune of choice. A breakdown would be something like ‘Sally Goodin’,’ ‘Grey Eagle,’ ‘Leather Britches,’ ‘Billy in the Lowground,’ ‘The Dusty Miller,’ ‘Tom and Jerry,’ or something like that. I played ‘Kelly Waltz’ a lot; you have to have a really smooth bow to do that. And the tune of choice could be anything you wanted to play. A lot of fiddle players picked a swing song because they could show off and play their hot licks. If you could pull that off without making a mistake, and make it sound like it had some magic, then you’d be recognized as a cut above somebody else.”
“When you’re learning those tunes, it’s an aural tradition,” says Spivey, who didn’t start playing fiddle until he was 16 years old. “You learn them just like Larry said. Somebody shows you the way it goes. But invariably, you’re going to put something in it that they didn’t show you.”
“I think every young player starts out with the melody until they get mature enough to realize what the chords are and understand that when you’re improvising, you’re keeping the same chord structure to the song,” says Sears, who used to compete against Franklin in those Texas contests. “You’re just writing a new melody. Like Joe was saying, it’s easy to take the melody and ornament it a little bit. Improvisation becomes very infectious. You just can’t wait to see what else can be done over this set of changes.”
If you’re taking your first steps toward improvising through small variations in the melody, an awareness of blues feeling and phrasing can be an invaluable guide. Bob Wills said as much himself, describing his own style as “slurring my fiddle to play the blues.” This element of phrasing, according to Spivey, comes directly from blues-guitar conventions.
“You see guys bending strings on the guitar,” he notes. “We can’t do that, so we have to slide into a note or out of it. That’s kind of the same thing. Chubby Wise was the master of the slurred note. If I did anything in my first eight months or so of playing fiddle, I was to center on where he was coming from.”
“Let’s say you’re in the key of A,” Franklin elaborates. “On your A string, you have your C-sharp note, your third. You’ll slide from the C up to the C-sharp or maybe even from the B. A whole-tone glissando like that is reminiscent sometimes of harmonica blues, with those whole-tone bends. You’ll do some glisses from the V up to the tonic, but most of the time it’ll be subtle bends up to a dominant seventh instead of just hitting it square.”
Though all three are now ferocious and fluent soloists, each took a different path to reach that stage. Franklin learned the basics from his father, Texas fiddler Louis Franklin, not so much through formal instruction as from just being around him and his family and friends. “There weren’t a lot of teachers back then,” he remembers. “The guys my age just learned on the fly from people like my dad. I was just real fortunate that my dad was a good fiddle player. He and my uncle won a lot of fiddle contests, but a lot of times they’d just enjoy jamming with people under shade trees. The people onstage would be begging them to come up and compete, and they’d just go, ‘I’m happy to be out here.’”
Spivey also learned mainly without lessons, but he does pay homage to one teacher he studied with briefly in Shreveport. “Miss Ruth Caldwell, she was real sweet,” he says. “She gave me this book called Violin Calisthenics. You don’t even need your fiddle for most of the exercises. You stand there in the proper posture with your bow arm out and you go through these different motions. She knew if she could help me with my bowing, it would help my fiddling. And I’ll be danged, it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.” As the only one of the three to receive classical instruction, Sears was able to absorb and apply proper technique to weekend gigs he would play with Billy Cray, a member of Texas honky-tonk legend Hank Thompson’s band. When Cray left, Thompson hired Sears as his replacement, to maintain a two-fiddle front line with either Dale Potter or Keith Coleman.
“Those guys were masters at working with twin fiddles or in a fiddle section,” Sears says. “They taught me as much as I learned at North Texas State. They always had me play the lead while they played the harmony. And they would just crawl up my ass! They said, ‘If you’re playing lead, you’ve got to be thinking harmony. Otherwise, you back us in a corner.’ So they raised me right.”
Sears’ comments suggest that classical background can be helpful, but much more is required to understand various schools of country fiddle. It can, in fact, even be a hindrance.
“Even to this day, I still feel a little restricted. When I hear Larry or Joe play a solo, they’re free to play whatever they want. But in the back of my head, I’m still thinking, ‘OK, no parallel fifths!’ and all that stuff they drilled into me,” he admits with a laugh.
On the other hand, Spivey often listens to classical violinists for inspiration and insight. “I’m always trying to hear something I hadn’t heard before,” he says. “I’m always thinking in different kinds of intervals, not just fiddly stuff. I play a lot of guitar and I notice that I’ll lean into something because it’s like guitar thinking. And I listen a lot to horns. Some fiddlers don’t stop because they don’t have to, but the horn guys taught me about dealing with breath in your phrasing.”
At Time Jumpers’ performances, where guitars, steel, and accordion take a full two verses for each of their solos, the fiddle players often divide theirs equally, each one playing maybe four bars and the next one picking it up at the end for his four.
Watching them perform, it’s obvious that Franklin, Sears, and Spivey take as much delight in what their colleagues play as in their own. “We want the guy standing next to us to knock us out,” Franklin says.
“That’s what we’re here for. I want to hear Andy on the far end play something on his guitar that wheels my head around. That’s what’s great about this band.”
“We’re all each other’s biggest fans,” Sears confirms.
That’s true, if you don’t count the Nashville fans that fill up 3rd and Lindsley every Monday night.
What the Time Jumpers Play:
“I have three or four fiddles made by Charles Horner over in Rockwood, Tennessee. When I played with a symphony, I used gut strings. Now I’m playing D’Addario. Each fiddle likes its own strings. I’m using an old Schuster bow that Larry helped me find. I would love to have a Tourte”
“I play a Chinese fiddle that was made probably five years ago. It doesn’t have a label on it, so I can’t even tell you who is claiming to have made it. Kenny helped me get it from a man he knows in San Francisco who goes to China. And I use Thomastik strings and an old Albert Nurnberger bow.”
“I play a Salazar, it was made somewhere around the early 1800s. I use Thomastik Infeld Reds. We’re using DPA microphones on our fiddles, and pick up the sound real good. I’ve got a Conrad Gotz bow, Nurnbergers and a few odds-and-ends bows, but this Gotz bow is my favorite.”