Andy Reiss and His Barney Kessels: A Love Story
The Time Jumpers guitarist talks about how he fell for a rare Gibson model, his instrument lineup for the group’s new album, and playing in a four-guitar band with Vince Gill, Ranger Doug, and steel giant Paul Franklin.
We’ve all been haunted by the desire for a certain guitar or other magnificent piece of gear. For Nashville 6-string strongman Andy Reiss of Grammy-nominated Western swing band the Time Jumpers, the axe of his dreams is the Gibson Barney Kessel model—an attractive, ergonomic, and classically voiced archtop built between 1961 and 1972 at the company’s original Kalamazoo factory.
Reiss’ magnetic attraction to the big-bodied jazz box began in his adolescence and became a lifelong affair. “I was probably 12 or 13 years old, and I would take the streetcar to downtown San Francisco to Sherman Clay [a legendary music store that served the Bay Area for 142 years before closing in 2013],” Reiss recently recounted backstage at 3rd & Lindsley, the Nashville club where the Time Jumpers perform nearly every Monday night. “You could play the Fenders—the Jaguars and all that stuff, which I thought was great. But they had this big cabinet, and up on top was the Barney Kessel. It was like, ‘There it is! The Holy Grail!’ They wouldn’t let you touch it. It was awesome. I was haunted by it through the years—it was the thing I aspired to. Every time I saw one, I thought, ‘Ooooo … a Barney Kessel. When I make it, I’ll have that guitar.’”
Today, Reiss has two, and they can be heard in full service on the Time Jumpers new album Kid Sister, which is in part a tribute to their late singer Dawn Sears, who died of lung cancer in 2014. In addition to his two Barney Kessels, Reiss played a Gibson Tal Farlow model, a 1959 Gibson ES-335, a ’61 Fender Jazzmaster, and a Burns baritone—all from his own collection—on Kid Sister, which ricochets from swing to ballads to lounge blues to old-school steel-guitar-powered country weepers.
Reiss acquired his first Barney Kessel, a sunburst model, in 1995 on eBay for $1,300. “I just loved the guitar. Just loved it! Recently I found a blonde one, which is on the cover of the new album, and I think it might be the only blonde one. They’re both ’66s, within 15 serial numbers of each other.”
Why such enthusiasm for a relatively obscure Gibson? Besides his childhood fixation, Reiss was also a fan of the model’s namesake: “He was brilliant! Intelligent and funky and soulful. A great blues player.” And then there’s the guitar itself: “It’s a big jazz box, which I love, but it has all the ergonomics of an ES-335. It puts the neck way out, and you have great access to the upper frets. It’s a very friendly guitar. I also have a ’63 Tal Farlow, and it sounds very similar—as all the Gibson jazz guitars do. They all have a 25 1/2" scale, so to a large extent they’re similar sounding. But the Kessel is special to play.”
The instrument also helps Reiss stand out onstage in a four-guitar, 10-member band—at least to
fellow players, whose eyes are quickly drawn to
the double-winged model’s distinctive contours and whose ears are lured by the luxe, warm tone. It helps that Reiss is brilliant at heating up the basic bones of the band’s music with chord solos, cool chord substitutions, and melodies that would
sound as natural on a Charlie Christian album as they do in the Time Jumpers’ charged interpretations of Western swing chestnuts like “San Antonio Rose” and Wynonie Harris' “Don’t Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes at Me,” done the way Bob Wills might have tackled it.
And the Time Jumpers’ other guitarists? They’re
all stellar pickers: Ranger Doug from Riders in the Sky, steel great Paul Franklin, and country hit-maker Vince Gill. “We each have pretty well defined styles,” Reiss observes. “Ranger Doug is strictly in [swinging jazzman] Freddie Green’s world. He’s the acoustic rhythm guitarist and that’s what he loves to do. Vince is an astonishing player—a great country player, a great blues player. And I stay on the jazz side of things and maybe the old-school country side, more than he does. Vince is kind of a Tele guy, and I try to be more of a Grady Martin-style guy. And, of course, Paul Franklin is the steel player.” Martin, by the way, was part of the legendary Nashville A-Team of session players from the ’50s through the ’70s, and Franklin is an innovator on his instrument who has appeared on well over 500 albums, from Mark Knopfler to Barbara Mandrell to Megadeth.
Before moving to Nashville in 1980, Reiss played a wide variety of styles. “I started out listening to the Ventures, like everybody else my age,” he says. “And then my brother brought home a B.B. King record and it pretty much changed my world. I was a real blues nerd for a few years, and B.B. King, Albert King, and Buddy Guy were my lights. I was growing up in San Francisco in the ’60s and we also had the Grateful Dead, the Airplane, Jimi Hendrix … we had everything going on around us. Big Brother, Quicksilver. But I wasn’t so much into that scene. I went from the blues nerd thing to listening to a lot of country on the radio. At first I thought it was humorous, and then I fell in love with it. And then I started listening to a lot of jazz. I got into Charlie Christian and followed the jazz route simultaneously with the country route. There are a lot of us who’ve walked both sides of that street.”
Andy Reiss plays his first 1966 Gibson Barney Kessel guitar, acquired in 1995 via eBay, at the Nashville Jazz Workshop. “I don’t think I’ve changed the strings in 20 years,” he notes. Photo by Ron Wade
Reiss says he moved to Nashville with the goal of being “the perfect session guy. I wasn’t quite sure what that entailed, but I was really lucky. I got to hang out with a producer named Pete Drake and see the A-Team work, so I got to learn. Pete Drake was wonderful. He was a great steel player and he had what he called the Drake School of Music, where you’d hang out and he’d drop pearls before us swine. I picked up a lot of wisdom.
“I never really became an A-Team session player,” Reiss continues, “but I’ve been a C-Team session player for 30 years, and I’ve been on hundreds, if not thousands, of records, so I can’t complain.”
Andy Reiss and his sunburst 1966 Barney Kessel, his first, take the lead in this blues jam filmed at the Nashville Jazz Workshop in 2013. The performance is full of Reiss’ gorgeous melodies, trills, comping, and solos, which, in this example, reflect the style of his guitar’s namesake.
Besides his gig with the Time Jumpers, Reiss has his own guitar-piano-drums jazz trio called Bad Rhythm, and is in traditional country singer Mandy Barnett’s band. He’s also a member of the Nashville Jazz Workshop, which featured Reiss in a tribute to Charlie Christian earlier this year. But the Time Jumpers hold a special place in his heart.
“One of the fun things about playing Western swing,” he imparts, “is that the songs are just simple three- and four-chord progressions, but you can superimpose all kinds of other stuff on them. I do a lot of rhythm guitar playing in the style of another one of my influences, [former Bob Wills guitarist] Eldon Shamblin, and he superimposed chords all over the place. That’s always a lot of fun.”