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Jimmy Bryant: faster guitar player resurfaces

By Jon Johnson, December 2003

On the morning of Nov. 15, the story of one of the top studio teams in the history of country music came to a close with the death of steel guitarist Wesley "Speedy" West at the age of 79.

Although West hadn't performed in 20 years, during his long career he'd played on literally thousands of sessions for hundreds of artists - mainly country performers, but also occasionally with pop acts like Bing Crosby, Kay Starr and Spike Jones.

At the center of his reputation, though, is several dozen hot bebop-influenced instrumentals recorded for Capitol between 1950 and 1956 with guitarist Jimmy Bryant.

The recordings made by the West/Bryant team (which also usually included bassist Cliffie Stone, rhythm guitarist Billy Strange and drummer Roy Harte) were a groundbreaking mix of country and jazz; clearly influenced by western swing, but outpacing even the most radical recordings made by Bob Wills' Texas Playboys and Spade Cooley's Orchestra in the mid-'40s. West's wild volume swells and pedal tricks provided the perfect accompaniment to Bryant's precise, breakneck lead guitar work.

Although the West/Bryant instrumentals have been reissued on several releases since the mid-'90s, none of Bryant's original solo recordings had ever been reissued on CD until the release in late November of the 3-CD collection "Frettin' Fingers: The Lightning Guitar of Jimmy Bryant" on the Sundazed label.

Born in Georgia on March 5, 1925, Ivey J. Bryant, Jr. (he didn't adopt the nickname "Jimmy" until he was in his mid-20s) was the oldest of 12 children. By most contemporary accounts, Bryant's father was a sharecropper and music lover who was proficient on several instruments. He, in turn, encouraged his son's interest in music at an early age, even building a fiddle out of a cigar box for his son. Unfortunately, Bryant's father also had a bad temper and a fondness for the bottle, characteristics which would sometimes surface in the son later in life.

"My mom and dad got divorced when I was born," says Bryant's son, John. "So when I was growing up, he'd come get me on the weekends. We'd go jeeping in the valley because there was a lot of open space, but he didn't really know how to be a father because he didn't have a good role model."

During the years of the Depression, Ivey Jr. (alternately called Buddy and Junior around this time) supplemented the family's income by playing fiddle on street corners. Drafted in 1943 when he turned 18, Bryant was shipped off to Europe where he served with General Patton's Third Army, participating in the invasion of Germany.

Severely wounded by a grenade in early 1945, Bryant sat out the closing months of World War II in a hospital, spending the down time recovering and teaching himself to play guitar. When he emerged from the hospital a few months later, peace had broken out, and Bryant found himself in demand by the USO as both a guitarist and a violinist.

After being discharged, Bryant returned to the U.S., purchased an electric guitar and an amp and spent the latter half of the '40s in Georgia, Nashville and Washington D.C. before heading to Los Angeles, where he'd been told there was growing hillbilly and country music scene, thanks largely to a huge influx of southerners during the '30s and early '40s.

"He kept hearing about California," says Jimmy Bryant's sister, Lorene Bryant Epps, who is the author of the biography "Jimmy Bryant: Fastest Guitar in the Country." "He and Russell Hayden and Doug McGinnis (two other musicians with whom Bryant was playing at the time) went to California together in a '37 Ford, and they played (gigs) all the way there. And when he got there, I remember he said (he) was not disappointed. He loved it from the start. And it wasn't long after he got there that he met Speedy West."

West, about 25 when he and Bryant met when playing down the street from each other in separate bars, was already a first-call studio musician at Capitol in 1949 and was one of the first steel guitarists to make the switch to pedal steel guitar, which offered greater sonic possibilities than the earlier non-pedal models. Late in 1949, West began appearing on Cliffie Stone's weekly TV series "Hometown Jamboree," and following the departure of guitarist Charlie Aldrich the following year, Bryant soon joined him.

California-based guitarist Deke Dickerson, 35, has been a booster of the West/Bryant recordings for years, going so far as to reissue a Jimmy Bryant 45 on his Ecco-Fonic label in the mid-'90s and producing a 1999 collaboration between guitarist Dave Biller and steel guitarist Jeremy Wakefield, which clearly owed much to the West/Bryant records of the early '50s.

Dickerson played a small role in producing "Frettin' Fingers," lending Sundazed a mint copy of Bryant's rare 1962 "Ha-So"/"Tobacco Worm" 45 when the original master tapes couldn't be found. Dickerson also contributed an essay on Bryant's guitars and amps for the collection's liner notes.

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