Blues musician Precious Bryant's rare gift had deep roots, carries on

Waverly Hall blues picker's unique character, style had worldwide impact

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 19, 2013 

Precious Bryant traveled the world and never left home, enriched the lives of millions and died too poor to pay for the funeral on her own.

She died Jan. 12, from ailments that long had afflicted her. Her funeral was Saturday in her hometown of Waverly Hall, Ga.

She grew up on a family farm in Talbot County and later lived in a trailer out there in the woods, yet she also once ate escargot that butlers with silver trays served at a fancy French chateau.

She played the Chattahoochee Folk Festival here in Columbus; the National Down Home Blues Festival in Atlanta; the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Ark.; the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I.; the Utrecht Blues Festival in Utrecht, Holland; and the Blues to Bop Festival in Lugano, Switzerland.

She learned to play guitar when she was too small to pick it up. At age 41 she was an instant hit with festival audiences from the moment she stepped on a stage. Yet she never went on tour and didn't release an album until "Fool Me Good" in 2002.

The French Academy of Music named it Blues Record of the Year. Living Blues magazine named it the best debut album and best new recording in traditional and acoustic blues. The album got accolades in Billboard magazine and Guitar One magazine and on National Public Radio.

"Fool Me Good" also was nominated for two W.C. Handy Awards, but did not win.

Her song "The Truth," the title track of her 2005 album, could be heard in a Jan. 25, 2008, episode of the TV series "Friday Night Lights," with Bryant singing and friend Jake Fussell playing guitar. Her song "Morning Train," again with Fussell on guitar, can be heard in the 2007 Samuel L. Jackson film "Black Snake Moan."

Poet laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem, "Fool Me Good," about listening to Bryant's song first thing in the morning. He recited it once on Garrison Keillor's NPR show "A Prairie Home Companion." Bryant and Fussell played on the show when it came to Atlanta's Chastain Park in 2005.

Over the years she earned the admiration of music stars Bonnie Raitt, who kept in touch, and Taj Mahal, who bought her a guitar when her others burned in a fire.

With fans all over the world, she gained fame, but not fortune. That's not unusual for down-home blues musicians who choose to stay home in the country. If they don't change their lifestyle, then their income doesn't change much, either.

Making money means hitting the road, going on tour, working the promoters, building up the venues and the fan base, and plugging the CDs.

Bryant wasn't up to that. Her health, derailed by diabetes and drinking, was one impediment: Having come late to stardom, she hadn't the stamina. Another drawback was that she didn't like traveling, particularly by plane.

George Mitchell, who in 1969 found Bryant while documenting the distinct lower Chattahoochee blues she later would revive for an international audience, recalls accompanying her on her first flight, to Holland in 1984.

Before takeoff he noticed her focusing intently on a magazine. He asked whether she was nervous. She was not, she said.

"You're holding the magazine upside-down," Mitchell noted. She turned it aright.

Otherwise she could make herself at home almost anywhere, and try almost any new kind of food, including raw fish sandwiches sold on the street in Holland. Other blues artists visiting overseas always wanted American food, but not Bryant, Mitchell said, adding, "I wouldn't eat one of those sandwiches."

A quarter-century later, with two acclaimed CDs and an international audience, Bryant decided she didn't care much for such travel, Mitchell said, and a performer who won't tour can't make big money. "Very few people of the old style made a good living at it," he acknowledged, but Bryant could have, "because she was so good, and such a hit wherever she was."

And wherever she was -- an exclusive get-together for high-society types in East Hampton, N.Y., or at Hennessy's Chateau in Cognac, France, where she first tried escargot -- she was just Precious, the same as if she were playing to friends outside her Waverly Hall trailer.

A guitar and a chair were all she needed. As Navie Epps said Saturday during Bryant's funeral in a packed Salem Primitive Baptist Church: "She didn't care about big cities and bright lights."

That was a shame, because audiences loved her. On stage her personality came through as clear as the notes she so precisely and lovingly picked on her big guitar.

Her natural stage presence surprised some people here in Columbus in 1983, when she first played to a wider audience at the Chattahoochee Folk Festival. Bryant was no stranger to playing in public, in get-togethers with her big family, almost all of whom played or sang, and at parties or "frolics" folks had out in Talbot, or in churches where she sang gospel with her sisters. Otherwise she had never played to a big crowd of strangers in a strange place.

When Mitchell finally persuaded her to play the festival, he and organizer Fred Fussell weren't sure how she would do.

She was an instant hit. From then on friends and fellow musicians marveled not only at how her guitar seemed so attuned to her heart, but how she talked to people like they were all her friends. And that wasn't an act. It was no surprise to her family. She stood out not only for her musical talent, which was not uncommon among the nine Bussey sisters or their relatives, but for her antics.

"One thing I will always say about her: She was hilarious," said her older sister Zola Bussey Goodwin. "When I felt bad, I would go down to her house, because I knew I would come back happy. … She really kept us laughing all the time."

And she let no misfortune change that joviality. "Anything bad, take it and make the best of it. That was just her style."

Born Precious Bussey on Jan. 4, 1942, she grew up in a farm family that was by no means rich, but not dirt poor, either. “We was just like everybody else out in the country,” said Goodwin. “At the time, we were living pretty good. We had hogs, cows, plenty of meat to eat.”

Bryant would not remain so well off. After she died, friends collected donations to help her family pay for the funeral.

As a little girl, Bryant started learning guitar as soon as she could sit in the lap of her daddy, Lonnie Bussey, or uncle, George Henry Bussey. The instrument was bigger than she. “She was very tiny,” Goodwin recalled. “You could hardly see her over the guitar.”

After her uncle got her a guitar of her own from Sears, she took it everywhere. “I used to take it on the school bus and me and another boy named John Henry Thomas, we played together on the bus,” she once told a reporter.

She played for her sister’s gospel group, and wasn’t shy about correcting anyone who missed the rhythm, as cousin Adeline Henderson recalled at her funeral. “Whatever came up came out,” she said of Bryant’s candor.

Besides gospel performances, Bryant honed her craft at area parties or “frolics,” as she once told an interviewer: “My sisters would have frolics and we would all get together and play and practice. I used to take my guitar and go around to people’s houses and play until fairly recently, but I stopped because so many folks want to get drunk and show out.”

She got married and had a son, Tony, who later would be her constant companion and accompany her on bass. He was just a little boy when his mother killed his abusive father in self-defense. She spent a day or two in jail while authorities sorted it out. Afterward she rarely spoke of it, once referring to it as “that little trouble my husband had.”

When Mitchell found her in 1969, her music wasn’t what it would later become. He got only a couple of songs out of her, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a longtime favorite played at her funeral Saturday, and “Georgia Buck,” adapted from Sam Mcgee’s “Buckdancer’s Choice,” a song she learned from her father. Mitchell urged her to learn some new tunes.

She did more than that. She started writing her own. “Blues singers weren’t doing new songs back then, and Precious was just coming up with them right and left,” he recalled.

Her music evolved into a unique mix of old and new, of African rhythms and old-time country and buckdance blues. It grew from deep roots here in the Chattahoochee Valley, where country blues pickers didn’t wail and moan, but made people get up and dance.

“She was unique,” Mitchell said. “For one thing she was a woman who played her own guitar and sang, and that was unusual. She continued and kept alive a very old kind of sound and tradition, even writing new songs in that style. That’s almost unheard of in her day and time.”

Said Amos Harvey, who produced her two albums for Terminus records: “I think she’s just such a well-rounded musician that you just don’t find people like her.” Her music was influenced by fife and drum band beats, rhythm and blues and country guitar, he said.

Her sound was inimitable because a mere proficiency in guitar could not replicate it, said fellow musician Neal Lucas of Talbot County, who often performed with Bryant at Columbus’ The Loft. Lucas and his father, Lee, played at her funeral.

“It’s hard to learn,” Neal Lucas said of Bryant’s technique, calling it a direct connection to generations of pickers who preceded her. “It comes from somewhere else. It’s not a technical thing.”

It was easier to learn from her that just being yourself is OK, the way she always was, he said.

“It is completely all right to be yourself and completely honest musically, because that’s what you need to be, anyway, and she lived that. That may be the most important thing I learned from her,” he said.

Bryant’s poor health finally caught up with her a week ago, while she was in The Medical Center.

She was 71.

Now she’s gone, but the musical tradition she helped revive carries on, along with the spirit that came through her guitar and her character.

As an elderly cousin, Lee Culpepper, put it simply at her funeral: “Nobody is going to forget Precious.”

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