Remember those Pace Picante Sauce television commercials that ran throughout the 1980s. "This stuff is made in New York City," a comical cowboy would say with horror after picking up a jar of salsa. A chorus of outraged cowboys would always follow that quip, screaming "New York City!" Before moving to New York City, I basically envisioned that same mindset coming from the trendy Manhattan social scene when the thought of country music came up. "This song is made way down south," a twenty-something would say as a toe-tapping tune came over the club speakers. "Way down south," the whole dancing mob would shudder in unison. Country western music just didn't seem like a likely fit for the Big Apple.
All of that changed when Lincoln Center's annual Midsummer Night Swing imported The Time Jumpers, a group of well-respected western musicians from Nashville that are nearly the only ones left keeping Western Swing music alive. To see this old fashioned bunch of artists take the outdoor stage at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park was quite a unique experience. New Yorkers gathered around the stage, decked out in cowboy boots and hats, ready to do some two stepping on the specially designed dance floor.
"The Time Jumpers only play a couple road dates a year," Ranger Doug Green told me while we chatted backstage before the performance. When not playing with this group, Green keeps busy as the lead singer of an equally impressive western band, Riders in the Sky. The fact that Green and his band-mates agreed to play New York City put a smile on his face. "It's the most exciting town on Earth and we have a great turn out."
Green, a self-professed music historian, reminisced about the seeming lost art of Western Swing, pinning the original style to musician Bob Willis. "Back in the 1930s, [Willis] took the fiddle music he grew up with and mixed it with Benny Goodman which he was hearing on the radio and mixed the two together." While that sound dropped off the pop culture radar when rock music swept the scene in the 1950s, Green beams with pride, asserting that the Time Jumpers are keeping it alive.
On Monday nights, The Time Jumpers play a regular gig at Nashville's Station Inn, where much of the crowd finds western swing a bit foreign. "We have the older people that remember the music," fiddler Kenny Sears told me backstage, "but we also get college students sent by their professors to study the music and younger kids who think we are doing something new."
The Time Jumpers songbook is comprised mostly of songs from the likes of Bob Willis and another western classic, Spade Cooley. Names that don't ring a bell with the crowd listening to Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, nor for that matter the tweens bopping to country acts like Taylor Swift or the Dixie Chicks. But, when Green mentioned the name Cooley to me, my ears perked up. My grandfather, Harry Sims, had been a western musician and played with the likes of Tex Williams and Cooley. It turned out that Green's other band, Riders in the Sky, actually recorded a version of a song my grandfather composed, "You Stole My Wife, You Horsethief."
Perhaps my grandfather's link to the era of western music that the Time Jumpers were playing that night is what has kept me interested in the genre, but it didn't take a family connection to get the lively crowd of New Yorkers to don their country best and dance at Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night Swing. With such enthusiasm on the Upper West Side of New York City last week, and popular artists like Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello making trips to Nashville for the Time Jumpers, perhaps it is time Manhattan got into the country western groove. Until then, this summer's Time Jumpers experience at Lincoln Center will have to tide this country western fan over for a while.
I am currently spending the summer working as Lincoln Center's first Blogger-in-Residence. Read more about The Time Jumpers and Midsummer Night Swing on my blog, Summer at Lincoln Center.
Follow James Sims on Twitter: www.twitter.com/simsjames