Country and western music will forever be known as the sound that elevated heartbreak to an art form. It was a soundtrack suitable for taking a swig off a longneck before a sobbing spell. Western swing, on the other hand, inhabits the opposite universe.
It just might be the cheeriest sound in the cosmos. Song lyrics and story lines flirt with the blues occasionally, but when multiple fiddles, spry guitar and animated pedal steel play alongside schooled but equally playful vocals, the effect is unavoidably stimulating. There is simply no way you can wind up in a bad mood.
"It won't let you feel down at all, will it?" said Kenny Sears.
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 in which 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 on the Western swing popularized from the 1930s to '50s.
But after two albums, both of which earned Grammy nominations, Sears thought it was time to make the band a priority and send it on the road. That's no easy feat when your group is 11 members strong and includes a few celebs unaccustomed to — but eager to take — 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 a concert Tuesday 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 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/ 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," Kenny Sears said. "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."
A Texas native, Sears 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 to 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 Western swing trumped classical instruction, so 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. ...
"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 in — and the Grammy nominations for — The Time Jumpers' 2012 self-titled sophomore album prompted the current tour. Beyond that, Sears is confident the band's profile will continue to grow. There are obstacles, though. Dawn Sears is undergoing treatment for lung cancer (she is planning to perform 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," he said. "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."
IF YOU GO
The Time Jumpers
When: 7:30 p.m. May 14
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short
Tickets: $45.50, $55.50; available at (859) 233-3535, Lexingtonoperahouse.com or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Learn more: Troubashow.com
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.