Rosanne Cash is one of America’s preeminent performing songwriters. A Grammy-winning singer and composer, she has recorded 15 albums and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2014 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for the Performing Arts. She is the author of a best-selling memoir, Composed, and a prolific writer and speaker. Cash is a restless artist of singular vision, and her newest album The River & The Thread—a collaboration with her partner, producer, and co-writer John Leventhal—is a breathtaking exploration of the American South: musically, narratively, spiritually, and geographically.
On the heels of her residency at the Library of Congress and her headlining appearances at some of the most renowned music festivals in the world, Rosanne Cash curates her own Carnegie Hall Perspectives series this season. She presents rich and disparate elements of American roots music, from traditional bluegrass to country and soul music, and from Western swing to hardscrabble, virtuosic folk music. She has invited some of the greatest musicians currently working in these fields to join her for an exhilarating celebration of the thread of Southern roots music, showcasing a soulful and quintessentially American cultural form. Cash’s Perspectives culminates with her own acclaimed concert of The River & The Thread.
Picture an ensemble of 10 players crowded around one stage. Armed with string instruments of all shapes and sizes, they play classical songs from a bygone era, eager to bring music frayed by time into the hands of a new generation. A few more members and you’d have a small chamber orchestra, but, once they start, it’s clear this band doesn’t play “classical” music of the Beethoven variety. This kind has a whole lot more twang.
Meet The Time Jumpers. Born in Nashville 17 years ago, it’s an ensemble of the town’s best players who gravitated together first as a casual means of expression (and decompression) and turned into something much, much more. Comprising renowned performer Vince Gill and a score of ace musicians, The Time Jumpers have garnered Grammy nominations, been asked to play on many modern records (including Miranda Lambert’s Automatic) and turned into one of Music City’s must-see attractions with their Monday-night residency at local club 3rd & Lindsley. And they’re doing all this by dipping into a country music catalogue with songs that are often more than 80 years old. From Fats Waller to Mickey Newbury, they don’t just resurrect the music, they keep its heart vigorously beating anew.
In a place where auto-tune, rap refrains, and bombastic guitar are seeping into every corner of the country tradition, this is a huge feat. Thus, The Time Jumpers have one mission: to bring old Western swing and the traditional gems of the genre back to the forefront. And keep them there.
“Any traditional style deserves to be kept alive and breathing, be it Delta blues or zydeco or bluegrass,” says “Ranger Doug” Green, vocalist and guitarist for The Time Jumpers, who joins Brad Albin (upright bass), Larry Franklin (fiddle), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Gill (vocals, electric and acoustic guitars), Andy Reiss (electric guitar), Kenny Sears (vocals, fiddle), Joe Spivey (fiddle, vocals), Jeff Taylor (accordion, piano), and Billy Thomas (drums, vocals) to comprise the band. “There is such a wide range of styles we think of as American, and electric swing and country fall into that because they are a living tradition—not one you’ll find in museum archives, but it’s still very much alive. And we are proud to be keeping it alive.”
On any given Monday, The Time Jumpers pull from the vast Western swing and traditional country catalogue—as well as new songs they have composed by the various members. Though many are in-demand session musicians found by day in the recording studios of mainstream Nashville, they’re insistent that their breed of music has a valid place in the changing landscape of Music City.
“Modern-day country is what a lot of us make a living playing, but it’s not what we do with The Time Jumpers,” explains Sears. “But the reason we started the band 17 years ago or so is because we wanted to have fun playing music. When you go into a session with someone, you’re a hired gun. It’s not always the most fulfilling situation. So we started getting together at the Opry backstage in one of the dressing rooms and jamming, and what came out of that is we realized that the most fun music to play is the old music that is lost to history. And we found the magic in it.”
“History moves on, styles move on,” adds Green. “But there is a growing number of people with a deep appreciation for something they perceive as really, really special.”
Country and Western hits from the 1930s and ’40s certainly aren’t the most marketable, but, through The Time Jumpers, they have gained a new footing due in no small part to the quality of the musicians in the band. Yes, Gill is a star of the genre, but these are the best fiddlers, best guitarists, best steel players in Nashville (if not the country). And they demand that the music is not something to be consumed casually. While traditional twang most often finds itself in near-kitsch capacity at the local honkytonks, The Time Jumpers (not unlike a classical orchestra) expect you to sit and pay attention.
“Normally you’d see a band like ours in Texas at the honkytonks. But we have never played one honkytonk,” says Sears. “We’ve never played a place where people dance, and we don’t want to. And that’s because when we play, people listen. And if they’re dancing, they are not really listening.”
That doesn’t mean that the first time the ensemble played for a classical, orchestral audience there wasn’t a bit of an adjustment period for everyone involved, but they adapted. And fast. “At some point during the show, I just told the audience—I just leveled with them—and I said, ‘Look, I understand that in the classical setting, you just don’t clap at inappropriate times,’” recalls Sears. “‘And you wait till the end before you applaud.’ But I said, ‘This is not that show! If you feel like clapping, just do it.’ And the rest of the show was wonderful.”
For their Carnegie Hall appearance, they’re going to play exactly as they always do, filling the room with whirling fiddles, wailing pedal steel, and wild swing. Be sure to clap along—at the end, certainly, or anywhere the mood takes you.
The Time Jumpers—a 10-piece, four-time Grammy-nominated band comprising legendary veterans of the Nashville music scene, united by their love of Western swing and traditional country music—bring Music City to New York City with unsurpassed skill, pure love for their chosen form, and genius execution of a program of songs both recognizable and fresh.
The rock tradition has seen many brilliant supergroups—from the Traveling Wilburys to Cream to Atoms for Peace—but the art of joining forces to make something greater than the sum of its parts is an ethos that’s been embraced even longer by those in folk, country, and jazz. Picking up an instrument and hopping in on a jam is a tradition that thrives in the roots world, and the combination of Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, and Sharon White captures both the perfect harmony of a creative pairing and what happens when you sacrifice ego for art.
Alone, they’re legends: Ry Cooder, one of the greatest guitarists of all time who brought his roots and blues-informed slide work to the likes of the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and Neil Young; Grand Ole Opry member Ricky Skaggs, who learned from bluegrass pioneers like Ralph Stanley and became one of the best-known modern interpreters of the genre; and Sharon White, member of The Whites, with her timeless vocal ability and gospel, country flair. One of them would be enough—as a trio, they’re dynamite. While “Americana” as a trend couldn’t be any bigger, Cooder–White–Skaggs actually deliver on its purest meaning, dripping across our diverse sonic heritage.
Cooder, despite a glass eye he’s had since early childhood, started playing the guitar when he was only three years old in his home state of California. That might seem like too many physical and metaphorical miles from Skaggs’s small-town Kentucky upbringing, but both started mastering their instruments before they were even in the double digits. A certain kind of groovy, rootsy blues was burgeoning in Cooder’s scene—Taj Mahal and Captain Beefheart, with whom he played—but he also began to explore other styles, too. More obscure techniques like Hawaiian slack-key guitar interested him, and he became a master of nearly every fretted instrument imaginable. Name it, he could play it.
Skaggs’s defining moment was almost a coronation: When he was still a boy, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe handed his mandolin over to “Little Ricky Skaggs,” urging him to play at a performance. Things only spiraled from there, as Skaggs went on to pluck alongside Flatt & Scruggs and hone his style, later using his virtuosic foundations to crack into country. In the 1980s, the genre was suffering a bit of an identify crisis, playing with everything from disco to Urban Cowboy themes, and Skaggs reconnected with its true foundations, so much so that master fingerpicker Chet Atkins credited him with “single-handedly saving country music,” shifting the focus from John Travolta’s tacky bolero back to the mandolin and banjo.
And in the geographic middle from her two now-bandmates, White grew up in Texas, forming the country and bluegrass trio The Whites with her father, Buck, and her sister Cheryl. They started releasing their records in the early ’80s around the same time that White married Skaggs, who would offer some of his stylings to their early LPs. Even so, it took them until just last year to finally release a collection of duets, Hearts Like Ours. It includes a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” which they sang to each other on their wedding day in August of 1981.
Cooder and Skaggs met years ago at the Grammys—all three of the musicians have won just about any kind of award you can imagine—but didn’t realize the dream of performing together until just recently, when they decided to launch this year’s run with White. They’ve toured auditoriums and theaters across the country, leading into their stop at Carnegie Hall, chosen by old friend Rosanne Cash. (At last year’s Americana Music Awards, she sang her song “A Feather’s Not a Bird” from The River & The Threadwith Cooder in one of the most stunning moments of the entire show.) Together, they’ll continue to show the Mumford & Sons of the world that the banjo, mandolin, and take-you-to-church vocals aren’t just elements of a fleeting trend. They are true American tradition, and these are its masters.
In an extraordinarily rare pairing, master multi-instrumentalists Ry Cooder and Ricky Skaggs come together to deliver a revelatory program of blues, gospel, and bluegrass. They are joined by Sharon White, one of the most pristine voices in Southern music and a member of The Whites, a trio that includes vocalist sister Cheryl and multi-instrumentalist father Buck, who are also on hand. Joachim Cooder is on drums and Mark Fain on bass for this program hosted by Rosanne Cash.
“Nothing gets the crowd going like a good saxophone solo,” laughs Paul Janeway of St. Paul and The Broken Bones. As lead singer of the brass-heavy Alabama-based soul band, he certainly knows a thing or two about the musical power of a horn section. But come to a St. Paul show and you’ll see almost instantly that the group’s electric stage presence and kinetic energy is more than just the result of those howling horns: Janeway can Sing—with a capital S—in the way that drops jaws and shakes heads.
Growing up in rural Alabama, Janeway wasn’t raised to be a rock star—he was even thinking about becoming a preacher when he realized that there was more than one way to take people to church, and that was through music. Built on the pillars of the Muscle Shoals spirit, St. Paul and The Broken Bones came together to continue the tradition of full-throttle Southern R&B soul, without simply recycling and repeating what had already been done.
“It’s a continuation of what’s real,” Janeway says, taking a break from recording their second album back home in Alabama. “No laptops, just real people doing real music. Many of us grew up around music, and it’s a part of who we are. It’s part of our lineage.”
On stage, Janeway hoots and hollers like James Brown going through a musical exorcism: down on his knees, pounding the stage, letting the rest of the collective pump their modern-age Stax Records sound around him as he hits unimaginably high notes. They’re so engaging that they snagged a coveted spot opening a few dates for The Rolling Stones on their Zip Code tour—a band that certainly knows a thing or two about how to make Muscle Shoals rock.
Janeway likes to joke that he only has one speed when he’s on stage: “100 miles per hour.” Indeed. “Music is about creating an experience,” he explains. “I used to intern at a little club in Birmingham. If a band played and there was nothing to it, I’d rather stay home and listen to the album. Why bother?”
St. Paul and The Broken Bones, however, completely transform their debut, Half the City, in concert, as evidenced by the pools of sweat on both the audience and the band. Janeway’s voice is undeniably a part of this, but much credit also goes to the dynamic horn section, something he admits is part of a dying tradition that he’s insistent on keeping alive. Though legacy acts like The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen made integrating instruments such as the saxophone a core part of their rock ‘n’ roll sound, it’s not exactly commonplace to see brass on stage—certainly not a whole section. Even many modern-day “soul” acts simply create their sonic palette with one acoustic guitar, reviving only those muddy Muscle Shoals melodies—not the players.
“The only requirement I had when starting this band was that we had to have a horn section,” recalls Janeway of the early days, putting together the group with bassist Jesse Phillips. “And it was hard to find horn players—there aren’t a ton of people doing it anymore.” Though St. Paul and The Broken Bones carry a punk ethos in their music, composing parts for brass instruments isn’t something to be done casually. They have to be carefully arranged, which is not an approach many modern bands are capable of tackling.
Janeway met Rosanne Cash, who personally selected the group to play her curated Perspectives series, through John Paul White, formerly of the Civil Wars. White released St. Paul and The Broken Bones’ debut LP on his label, Single Lock Records, which aims to preserve the new class of Muscle Shoals music and beyond. “She also introduced us to Elton John, which was crazy,” Janeway chuckles.
“Everyone knows what Carnegie Hall is, and I never thought I would be asked to play anything associated with it,” he says, his gratitude (and maybe a little bit of trepidation) clear. “But our show is interactive, and there’s a punk-rock element to it. I just hope we don’t break anything nice!”