Every musician aspires to one particular defining moment, such as performing at Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera or with noted celebrities in classical, jazz, folk, country, or whatever genre. Few achieve their dream. For Kenny Sears, his dream has come true: he is a regular fiddler for the Grand Ole Opry and as a sideman, and has played for many of the country music “stars,” both in concerts and on recordings.
Born in 1953, Kenny spent his formative years near the Texas-Oklahoma border. Born in Dennison, Texas, he grew up on a cotton and cattle farm in Liberty, Oklahoma. In 1970, he graduated from high school in Achille, Oklahoma. Playing with the Austin College Symphony Orchestra led to a full scholarship to be a music major at North Texas State University, from which he received a Bachelor of Music degree in 1974 and a Master of Music degree in 1975. During and soon after his college years, he played violin with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from 1973-1975.
For years, Kenny appeared frequently on the Grand Ole Opry, touring with and accompanying a myriad of celebrity performers (more on this later). Nowadays, he is on the Opry almost every week, and his band, the Time Jumpers, is on the Opry about once a month.
The Time Jumpers is an extraordinary swing band. There are eleven members (alphabetically): Dennis Crouch (string bass), Paul Franklin (pedal steel guitar), “Ranger Doug” Green (acoustic rhythm guitar and lead vocals), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Carolyn Martin (lead and harmony vocals), Andy Reiss (electric lead guitar), Dawn Sears (lead and harmony vocals), Kenny Sears (fiddle and lead vocals), Joe Spivey (fiddle and harmony vocals), Jeff Taylor (accordion and harmony vocals), and Rick Vanaugh (drums). When Ranger Doug is on the road with the Riders of the Sky, Vince Gill often fills in (acoustic rhythm guitar and lead vocals).
In 1987, Kenny married Dawn, a young singer from East Grand Forks, Minnesota. When they met, she was performing with her own band in Las Vegas. Within the Nashville music community, Dawn Sears is considered to be one of the best vocalists, whether as a soloist (with the Time Jumpers) or backup/duet singer for notables (particularly Vince Gill and Tracy Byrd). She has done countless studio recording gigs, as well as television, radio, and stage performances. In addition to her work with the Time Jumpers, she pursues her singing career (with several major CDs), with frequent appearances on the Opry. With their daughter Tess and a Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, Jag, Kenny and Dawn live in a large brick home overlooking the Cumberland River near Gallatin, Tennessee. It is there that this interview took place.
What drew you from a classical or jazz career into being a sideman extraordinaire in Nashville?
I really wanted to play country fiddle; that’s what touched my heart. I always knew that I wanted to play with the Nashville folks, and on the Grand Ole Opry.
How did you become interested in the violin or fiddle?
My mother and sisters played music a bit and we had a lot of country records. I especially liked the recordings by fiddler Tommy Jackson and, of course, the big band western swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I was never, however, very excited about square dance music or contests. Sure I played in contests and won trophies, but there is something about competing with other musicians that is troubling. In a contest, someone is always a loser, and I believe that musicians should build each other up, not put anyone else down.
The impetus for learning fiddle was my great uncle, Olan Washer. When I was young, maybe five or six, I remember becoming transfixed one night with his fiddling at our house. While the other kids were playing, I was mesmerized hour after hour, by Uncle Olan playing his fiddle. That’s when the bug bit me, and my life changed –– I wanted to play the fiddle, too.
My dad realized that I was serious and told me that when I was seven, he would buy me a violin. True to his word, I reached seven and he bought me an instrument, but it was a 4/4 and too big. After awhile, my dad sold some calves and bought me a 3/4 violin. He wanted me to take lessons. When he could not find me a teacher for fiddle, I went down the classical road.
My first teacher was Kay Param in Durant, Oklahoma. She could only teach classical music. Eventually she said, “I’ve carried you as far as I can,” and arranged for me to study with Eugene Groom. Since he was concertmaster for the Austin College Symphony Orchestra in Sherman, Texas, he got me an audition, and when I was ten, I was given a seat in the Orchestra.
At North Texas State University, I studied with Dr. James Learch. I used to play in symphony concerts wearing black patent leather boots with my tux, make a quick change to jeans and shirt and race to the Long Horn Ballroom to play with Leon Rausch, an alumnus of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Classical merged with country music.
By then, I was playing gigs in shows and clubs, including with the Big D Jamboree. The bandleader for Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys, Billy Gray, formed his own band and I played fiddle with him on the road. This was an award-winning touring band, with Dale Potter, Keith Coleman, and Bobby Creighton. I learned a lot about voicing harmony. My ability to do commercial voicing was complemented by having learned four-part choral style arranging and composition at the University, as well as my playing with orchestras and a string quartet. My formal training carries over to this day when I am doing arrangements for recordings or the Time Jumpers.
Even as a boy, I dreamed of playing with good bands and artists in Nashville. I wanted to do recordings, see the world, and retire on the Grand Ole Opry. With that longtime hope, I moved to Nashville in 1975.
The Nashville Scene
Hitting Magic Town or Music City at the age of twenty-two, how did you get into the working group of musicians? From my years in Nashville, I know that it takes more than talent per se to get gigs.
First, anyone today who comes to Nashville should not be as naïve as I was in thinking that my playing would get me employed. Now you need to be able to support yourself in some other work because even the talented musician may find that it takes years to start getting calls to play.
I was and still am willing to work day and night, so I was really hustling to make connections. Any musician in Nashville, or probably anywhere else as well, has to expect some lean times. It is important to learn how to make music a business.
I was lucky. After I worked for just a few months in the new Gibson factory, I started getting calls to play. My first job was with Faron Young, and then with the house band in Webb Pierce’s club called the Rhinestone Cowboy. One night Mel Tillis, along with some of his Statesiders, came into the club, heard me play, and offered me a job.
From 1977 to 1988, I worked with Mel Tillis. When I joined him, he was really hot. He had just won Entertainer of the Year in country music and was playing 250 to 300 dates per year. Also, he was paying better than anyone else. I played with Mel for about twelve years. During a one-year break from Mel, I played with Ray Price, who was receiving attention for his 4/4 shuffles and string sections. I got to play fiddle on the shuffles and violin on those great arrangements done by Cam Mullins.
When I rejoined Mel, it was as his bandleader and we had some really good fiddle sections. We might have two, three, or four fiddles. I usually played the lead line. I had learned from Dale Potter and Keith Coleman that fiddle sections need someone who can truly “lead.” Dale and Keith taught me: “If you try to follow each other, there will be chaos. You should make the effort to blend, but the lead player has to lead strongly so the harmony players have something to follow.” To this day, the three fiddles in Time Jumpers operate that way –– I try to provide a strong lead, Joe Spivey plays a second part, and Aubrey Haynie plays the bottom part.
Why did you leave Mel’s group?
When Mel moved to Branson, I had just gotten married to a wonderful singer, Dawn Sears, and we wanted to be in Nashville to promote her career. We both were involved with Ralph Emery’s five-day-a-week television show on the Nashville Network. I greatly appreciated my years with Mel Tillis, but it was time to move to something different.
I have been blessed. My dream has come true. I have played with so many fine performers, and I like to think that the best is yet to come with our Time Jumpers.
For what it is worth, I have been impressed that you are always dressed in a crisp, immaculate way.
I have always thought that performers should dress well, not come on stage in sloppy clothing. Sometimes the styles these days tend to be, in my opinion, too casual.
I have also noticed that even on a fiddle tune, like “Orange Blossom Special,” you keep your right elbow up, hold your bow correctly, and keep a proper left hand position. You maintain good posture, and don’t bend, twist, and dance while you play. When you play a solo, you seem to be interpreting the tune, not just showing off your technical facility like so many fiddlers.
Yes, I was taught how to interface with my violin, and I continue to try to hold and play it correctly. As for interpretation, I believe that interpreting the tune provides both the audience and me with a sense of creativity.
On the Road
As opposed to striving to be a solo artist, you seem to have been content with the life of a sideman. Frankly, I believe that I would find playing the same “hit tunes” that are associated with any particular celebrity singer every night to be a bit boring. Also, life on the road, by all accounts, is difficult to tolerate at times. I would find living in motels or on a tour bus to be mentally stultifying.
I never wanted to be a “star.” I guess it’s because I’ve never had the ego to need to be a celebrity. I just want to write, record, and perform good music. As for boredom and the burnout from being on the road, when you are making a living, you do what you have to do. Being on the road is not easy living. Most singers do the same program night after night, especially their signature songs. To his credit, Mel Tillis might open with a couple of his big hits, but we never knew what might be coming next. He was from the “old school” of entertaining the audience. He tried to select tunes that the particular audience would like. The program was different every night –– which was a good thing to keep me on my toes. You are right, however; not only can being a sideman on the road become boring, you lose your chops as well. I have always led a pretty conservative lifestyle, so when I was on the road, while the other musicians were sleeping late, I would stick a mute on my violin and practice scales and arpeggios in the motel room.
I heard that, despite the demands of your performance and recording commitments, you still teach. Do you teach violin or fiddle? Are your students adults or kids?
I teach both violin and fiddle to both adults and youngsters and am rather selective about the students I accept. I try to teach what the particular student wants to learn, at least that’s where I start. I try to move all of my students on into things that will be good for their musical development, even if they aren’t interested in that kind of music. Right now, I have ten students every Wednesday, about half of whom are kids. I get a number of professional musicians. It is common for a young performer to come to Nashville riding on a recording and only be able to play a limited amount on their instrument, namely the tunes that studio musicians recorded and the performers then learn, more or less, to imitate. You might be surprised at how many acts, especially young folks, do not really know much about playing the instruments that are being held in videos or on stage.
Here in Nashville, I have noticed two very disparate things among the musicians. Some have far more formal education in music than folks would probably expect, such as your artistic and scholarly background at North Texas State University, and some can be playing the fire out of an instrument but not know what note or chord is being played. It is like they play by rote, not musical ability.
Yes, that is true, which is why, in my teaching, I try to get every student to learn to read music, including those who just want to play country fiddle.
Do you teach music theory?
Absolutely, no matter what the student prefers, I want him or her to know music theory –– it improves their playing, especially improvisation. I want them to have a successful career.
The Time Jumpers
The Time Jumpers group has been widely acclaimed for the tight harmony of the three fiddlers –– you, Joe Spivey, and Aubrey Haynie. Given your formal training and the complexity of your harmonies, do you write out your arrangements?
No, our arrangements just spontaneously happen. In fact, since everyone is so busy, we seldom get to practice. I have only written arrangements for a few of the tunes, like Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” that Dawn sings like a torch song.
You have been a mainstay on Monday nights at the iconic Station Inn and I know from personal experience that, unless you get there a couple of hours before your performance starts, it is nigh impossible to get in the door. Since the whole crew has been around Nashville for years, to what do you attribute the enthusiastic response that you are receiving?
I like to think it’s the unique combination of musicians that have come together, somewhat by chance, to form the Time Jumpers. Also, every one of us in the group truly enjoys playing together, and when the music comes out, there is a synergistic effect.
You are saying that the end result is greater than the sum of the parts?
You bet. Each person’s musical abilities complements the performance by every other member in the Time Jumpers. I don’t how it came about, but we seem to have a unique musical connection. We all feel blessed sharing the musical experience. Also our recordings have been getting good reviews. We did a video that is used on PBS, which seems to be quite popular.
You are the leader of the Time Jumpers. Do you get paid more?
We needed someone to handle the business aspects of the Time Jumpers, and I accepted the challenge. Although I am the designated leader, we are a collective, and split the revenues equally. We are literally and figuratively a “band of equals.”
So where will you be musically in the next five or ten years?
Pretty much doing just what I am doing now. I would like to take the Time Jumpers on the road, but with a group so big, it might be difficult to find jobs, especially in the current economy. Also, the members of Time Jumpers are all so busy with other projects and businesses –– it would probably be hard to get everyone freed up enough to tour –– but we will see.
Also, Dawn and I are hoping to make a new CD, possibly Christmas music. As I mentioned, the economy poses a problem. Already there has been a decrease in recordings and, in fact, opportunities for concerts. Of course we believe that the quality of our music will overcome the economic barriers.
Since the Time Jumpers play the Opry about once a month, our ultimate hope is that we will someday be elevated officially to the coveted status of “Members” of the Grand Ole Opry.
As a long-time scholar of the Nashville musical scene, I am willing to bet, because of your musicality and personal characteristics, that you will accomplish your musical goals.
A Christmas Dawn—A Collection of Christmas Classics, Dawn Sears with Kenny Sears, www.dawnsears.com, 2008.
Too Tough for You, Tommy Irvin with Kenny Sears (and others), Topcat, 2007.
Classic Songs of Ray Price, Ray Price with Kenny Sears (and others), Varese Sarabande, 2007.
Jumpin’ Time by the Time Jumpers (2 DVD set), Crosswind, 2007.
Jumpin’ Time (2 CD set), the Time Jumpers, Crosswind, www.timejumpers.com, 2006. Two GRAMMY nominations in 2008.
Greatest Hits of Tracy Byrd, Tracy Byrd with Kenny Sears (and others), BNA Entertainment, 2005.
One Day at a Time: 24 Greatest Gospel Hits, Kenny Sears (and others), Teevee, 2003.
Legends of the Fiddle—20 Bluegrass Classics, Kenny Sears (and others), King Records, 2002.
Dawn Sears, Dawn Sears with Kenny Sears, www.dawnsears.com, 2002.
Classic Gospel Fiddle Playin’, Kenny Sears, King Records, 2001.
Amigo with David Ball, David Ball with Kenny Sears (and others), Dualtone Music Group, 2001.
Nothin’ But Good, Dawn Sears, Decca Records, 1994.
What a Woman Wants to Hear, Dawn Sears, Warner Bros. Records 1991.
Various other recordings with Mel Tillis, Faron Young, Ray Price, Jimmy C. Newman, Jeannie Seely, Sammy Smith, Jack Greene, Lorrie Morgan, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, and others.
[Robert “Doc” Woody is a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and a consulting psychologist and an attorney in private practice. He is the leader of Doc Woody and the River City Ragtime Band (see www.docwoodymusic.com). He frequently contributes articles to music journals and magazines.]