[14 March 2005]
In the overcrowded world of today’s faux-blues artists, we have women who strictly sing (the sometimes-good, sometimes-overwrought Shemekia Copeland comes to mind), and women who sing and strap in and plug in their electric gee-tar (Debbie Davies, Susan Tedeschi, etc.). But it’s rare to find a throwback lady: one who de-amplifies and is just happy with an acoustic guitar in hand and a whole lot of songs to sing. That’s where Georgia native Precious Bryant comes into play.
Bryant, born Precious Bussey in 1942, grew up one of nine children (all but one are girls) in a family who loved music. With both her father and uncle mentoring, she learned to play her dad’s guitar when she was merely six years old. Three years later, her dad bought her her very own Silvertone. Though singing gospel with the family early on, Bryant learned about the blues and rock ‘n’ roll from listening to the radio. She started playing locally, and was recorded by musicologist George Mitchell in 1969. Mitchell encouraged her to perform live, and her appearance at the Chattahoochee Folk Festival springboarded her career, at least for touring.
Mitchell is the same person who recorded many of the North Mississippi Hill Country artists for their debuts, including Mississippi Fred McDowell, Ranie Burnette, and R.L. Burnside. It’s no coincidence that their sounds are similar to Bryant’s. Since Bryant is a Georgia native, there’s some Piedmont blues mixed in with the Hill Country stylings. She has the aura, the down-home folksiness, and gentleness of Memphis Minnie, yet can make sounds with her guitar that most men would have trouble enacting. Also, another Fat Possum connection: Amos Harvey, who produced her first “real” album (2002’s Fool Me Good), works with her on her second release, the joyous The Truth. Harvey worked for a time for Fat Possum, and intimately knows its sound.
While Fool Me Good was recorded in a friend’s house without overdubs, and just with Bryant’s voice and acoustic guitar, The Truth expands on that just a bit. Some of the 14 songs still follow the same solo path, but on others, Bryant is backed by a full band, including her son Tony on bass, J.D. Mark on drums, and second (electric) guitarist Jake Fussell. Don’t be scared, though—the other instruments add complementary flavor to the songs. Bryant’s singing and playing are first and foremost up front.
Bryant only wrote four songs for The Truth, choosing instead to cover six traditionals and four credited songs. One of the originals, “Dark Angel”, is a rompin’, stompin’ band effort about the T.V. show of the same name. The title song sounds sweet enough, but the lyrics are politely demanding. She takes on Willie Dixon’s “My Babe”, Denise LaSalle’s “Don’t Jump My Pony” (complete with what sounds like the clip-clopping of hooves) and the Irma Thomas hit, “You Can Have My Husband.” Traditional gospels she reworked to her style include “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray” (a song she was reluctant to record, since her mother is still alive), “Standing at the Station”, “Morning Train”, and “Good Night”.
Regardless of whether she’s doing gospel, blues, or even just playin’ around with the genres at large, there’s no mistaking Bryant’s talent, both vocally and with guitar in hand. Like most traditionalists, she uses her thumb to play the low-bottom rhythm, and the rest of her fingers to play the melody and any solo. The instrumental “Sugar Hill Blues” showcases Ms. Bryant’s finger-pickin’ efforts to the max, even with the band augmenting in the background. The music is mostly of the toe-tapping variety, with or without drums.
Granted, The Truth leans more towards a blues bent, but it can snuggle under the folk banner just as easily. Precious Bryant has the talent to walk along both musical bridges, and do so with comfort and respect from her peers and listeners alike. At a relatively young 63, Bryant has many years left to add to her legacy—and yes, in this case, her two albums comprise a legacy of sorts. Not since Memphis Minnie has a woman tackled country blues and flourished with such talent and aplomb as Precious Bryant. The Truth has been told—this is one of the best blues releases of 2005, regardless of what comes out the rest of the year.