Billy Thomas

The Time Jumper

Seeing as he’s got a recording and touring résumé as long as your arm, you’d think the longtime Vince Gill sidekick would have done pretty much everything there is to do as a first-call Nashville cat. But like they say, everything old is eventually new again, and a recent immersion in Western swing music has allowed this drummer to experience some completely novel situations—and up his game in the process.

Story by Mike Haid
Photos by Rick Malkin

Western swing was established in the 1920s and ’30s with one foot in Appalachian roots music and the other in urbane big band. Groups playing this uniquely American hybrid filled dance halls in California, Texas, and Oklahoma, and as radio became more popular in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, the style surged on a national level—until rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll changed the course of popular music forever. The early rockers were, indeed, heavily influenced by the Western swing sound. Rockabilly icon Bill Haley, for instance, led a group called the Four Aces of Western Swing well before becoming a rock ’n’ roll trailblazer.

In modern times, few musicians have embraced the true Western swing format. The long-running group Asleep at the Wheel is probably the most widely known keeper of the flame originally lit by artists like Hank Thompson, Spade Cooley, and, most famously, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. In the late ’90s, though, a group called the Time Jumpers, which began as an excuse for some of Nashville’s best pickers to jam on an off night, began to draw attention to their weekly performances at the Station Inn bluegrass club. In 2010 contemporary country star Vince Gill joined in, later enlisting his drummer, Billy Thomas, and considerably upping the group’s cachet. Today you can usually find the ten-piece band filling the stage at Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley on a Monday night, performing to a packed house and typically joined by a high-profile guest or two.

“I liken the music of the Time Jumpers to a more sophisticated side of Western swing,” says drummer and vocalist Thomas, a thirty-year Nashville vet. “That’s what drew me to the band. When you go back and listen to Bob Wills, there’s an incredible bounce to that music, but it’s also rugged. I think Western swing artist Ray Benson [Asleep at the Wheel] picked up on that with an almost roadhouse approach to the style. The Time Jumpers have taken it to a more cosmopolitan side of the tracks. Our music is dynamic, with sophisticated arrangements, and some of the best players in the business are in the group. They understand what section playing is and how to blend musically. There are ten people on stage, but we like to set up tightly together. The bass rig is about two feet from me. I could easily get away with not having a monitor. The only reason I have one is because I sing, and the only thing I have in there is vocals.

“[The opportunity to play in the group] was very intriguing,” Thomas continues, “and very expanding for me, because this gig requires that I play brushes the whole night, which I had never done before. I got into Ed Thigpen’s book on brush technique for a short while. But it was way over my head with all the shadings and subtlety that made him so great. So I picked up on the basics and then created my own approach.”

Thomas knows about coming up with his own way of doing things, being a natural lefty playing a right-handed kit. “I’m not what you would call ambidextrous,” he says, “so I do my best to play right-handed ride with left-handed 2-and-4 backbeats. When I first started playing, every drummer I saw played a right-handed kit, so I just assumed that this was the only way to play drums. I never knew that you could move things around. I’m self-taught, so I approach it my own way. It doesn’t look schooled, but it works for me.

“When I started noticing open-handed players like Lenny White and Billy Cobham,” the drummer continues, “I gave that a try, but again, it didn’t really work for me. Once I started playing with Vince Gill, I had to learn to play brushes. So I learned to stir with my left and ride with my right. This way I can pick up a stick and play ride with my right while still stirring with my left brush to create different shadings. I’ve tried reversing the pattern, and I’m making some progress.”

Appropriate to the history of the music, Thomas approaches the Time Jumpers’ material as a jazz drummer would, feathering the bass drum at low volumes and paying close attention to dynamics at all times. “I believe this music was designed for the listener to feel the bass drum, and for the upright bass to keep the quarter-note pulse,” Thomas says. “What differentiates Western swing from big band swing is the simplicity of the beat. In a big band, you create a drum flurry to set up the horn lines. Western swing is not that. This is more of a two-beat thing, keeping time through the string lines. The arrangements still explode and have energy, but the drummer doesn’t set that up like you would in a big band setting. You drive right through the figures.

“There’s also a lot of help from the rhythm section to keep the pulse moving. There are three guitar players in this band, each playing a unique rhythmic part, and it all fits tightly together. We work on this stuff to create the right feel and flow for the music. There’s also accordion and piano that fit into the rhythmic spectrum, while the three [fiddle] players carry the melody. When it all comes together, it’s a powerful sound.”

In addition to touring and recording with Vince Gill for the better part of thirty years, Thomas did extensive stage and studio work with A-list country acts like Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart, Ricky Nelson, and Earl Scruggs prior to joining the Time Jumpers. During the early ’90s, he was a founding member of the hit-making trio McBride & the Ride. But before recording the most recent Time Jumpers release, Kid Sister, he’d never recorded with a full band live in the studio. “Kid Sister was done in Vince Gill’s home studio,” Thomas explains, “and the balance and blend [when you record a full band live] has to be perfect. This type of recording really separates the men from the boys. There’s no click track or electronic guidance going on. We set up and played as a band.”

Thomas and the other Time Jumpers recorded in the same fashion when they contributed to half the songs on Willie Nelson’s 2016 album For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price. “That was another amazing experience,” Thomas says, “setting up together and recording at Ocean Way Studios with Willie, who has always been an advocate of Western swing and a huge fan of Bob Wills.

“Western swing is feel-good music,” Thomas says in explanation of the style’s growing popularity. “It’s infectious, and you can’t help but tap your toes and want to dance. We just played Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is the mecca of where this music began, and the way the crowd responded, you would have thought we were the Beatles. Cain’s is a huge dance hall/museum with old wooden floors, and to see the people reacting with such enthusiasm was truly amazing. To get that kind of response and respect was really telling of the power and growing popularity of the music.

“The diversity of the players and singers in the Time Jumpers is what makes this band unique,” Thomas says. “We’ve got some old-school jazz-type players as well as some hardcore country players. Then you have Vince, who’s a hybrid of styles and influences, which comes through in his music when he writes for the band. I’d like to think that in my green way of approaching this music I bring a different element than a player who only plays Western swing music would. I’m always learning as I go. Plus I sing, and that changes my approach to playing as well. We have five lead vocalists in the band. Vince does the bulk of it, since he’s writing most of the material. I sing lead on one tune, ‘Blue Highway Blue,’ and then we add vocal harmonies that are just as complex as the three fiddle players when they arrange their harmonic structure playing lines together.

“The Time Jumpers is a uniquely amazing experience for me,” Thomas adds. “It’s exciting to be a part of such a great group of musicians and wonderful people. I feel that we’re creating something that’s fresh and new but rooted in the tradition of Western swing. We’re building a loyal fan base and helping to bring a new awareness to a fun, family-friendly American musical art form. We have a good time with our audience, because we love what we do, and we want to share that good-time feeling with everyone who comes out to see the band. And that’s my job—to make it feel good.”

Vince Gill on Billy Thomas

“The best drummers feel great to me,” Vince Gill says. “That’s why Billy and I have been playing together for thirty years. On top of that, he’s a great singing drummer, and you can count those on one hand. You save yourself the expense of hiring an extra singer when you have a great singing drummer. In fact, I first met Billy when I hired him for background vocals on a session. He had just moved to town, and he told me that he also played drums. I said, ‘Would you like a job?’

“Billy’s a versatile player, but he’s meat-and-potatoes and [doesn’t give you] too much information, which is important to me. Most of all, he’s a great hang. After all the notes get played, there’s another twenty-two hours of life on a bus, and in all the years I’ve known Billy, I’ve never seen him have a bad day. He’s good people, and even though he took off a couple of times to play with Emmylou Harris and with McBride & the Ride, we just can’t get rid of each other!”

Tools of the Trade

“I’m still evolving, looking for the right sound for the Time Jumpers,” says Billy Thomas, who relies on vintage drums to help capture an authentic Western swing sound. At the time of this interview, he was using a 12×22 blue and white Duco-finish 1964 round-badge Gretsch bass drum and a 9×13 ’60s-era Slingerland rack tom in a similar finish. The bass drum has a thin front head with no port and minimal internal muffling. The tom is mounted on a snare stand and fitted with a vintage thin batter head.

“The bass drum has single-rod tuning,” Thomas explains, “and it was a bear to get the drums in tune. So I took them to Fork’s Drum Closet in Nashville, and they cleaned them up and put some [vintage-style] heads on them. When I finally sat down to play them, they had an amazing sound that immediately made me play differently. It’s a much warmer sound than I was used to.”

Thomas’s Time Jumpers snare is a 4×14 Kenner cardinal-wood stave-shell model fitted with an Evans J1 Etched thin batter head for extra brush response. “This drum is serving me well with all of the metal brushwork the band’s material requires,” Thomas says. “Also, its thick shell gives me lots of bottom end [even though it’s] tuned rather high. My backup snare is a 5.5×14 blue and white Duco-finish round-badge Gretsch that matches my bass drum. I used this drum for quite a while, but I changed to the ten-lug Kenner for finer tuning ability.

“These drums are set up to respond to a lighter dynamic range. They’re all wooden shells, and the warmth I hear from them makes me play differently from how I’ve ever played before.”

Thomas also uses a gig-specific Sabian cymbal setup with the Time Jumpers, including a pair of 14″ Jazz hi-hats, a 10″ HHX splash, and a 15″ HHX X-Plosion crash. “The splash and crash were chosen for making fast punctuated statements,” Billy says. “And the hats are really crisp when I’m pedaling to accent 2 and 4.”

Thomas chose his Promark B300 Oak Handle Accent brushes for the Time Jumpers gig as well. “I like the way they feel,” he says, “and I can turn them around to get a cross-stick sound.”Likewise, his DW 5000 model bass drum pedal is fitted with a lamb’s-wool beater because it makes a less pointed attack, which is appropriate for Western swing.

When Thomas does regular Vince Gill gigs, he plays a Ludwig Classic Maple kit in sky-blue oyster pearl finish, with a 9×13 tom mounted on a snare stand, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 14×22 bass drum. His main snare is a Ludwig 5×14 Supraphonic, and he has a 6×14 Kenner Custom Cast Aluminum model for when he uses brushes. The bass drum has an Evans EQ2 batter head, the toms have G2 batters, the Supraphonic has a Level 360 Power Center Reverse Dot batter, and the Kenner has a J1 Etched batter. Thomas’s Sabian cymbal selection includes 14″ Artisan hi-hats, 18″ and 19″ HHX X-Treme crashes, and a 21″ HHX Raw Bell Dry ride. Billy uses Promark Hickory 7A and 5A wood-tip sticks and B300 Oak Handle Accent brushes, Ludwig cymbal and hi-hat stands, a DW 5000 bass drum pedal, and a Porter & Davies BC Gigster throne.