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Precious and few 

A reluctant gem, blues great Precious Bryant remains comfortable at home in southwest Georgia

It may seem bizarre in this age of 500 cable television channels, digital radio and the Internet, but not everyone wants to be famous. Many blues, folk and country artists, raised in rural settings in the days before television, don't inherently embrace the notion of spilling their guts to total strangers, of revealing emotions, personal motivations, vices and shortcomings to someone who will recast their thoughts, accurately or otherwise, in the media.

Nonetheless, it was something of a surprise to learn that southwest Georgia folk singer/songwriter/guitarist Precious Bryant wasn't giving interviews to promote her fine new CD, Fool Me Good, or her upcoming shows. According to the publicist for Atlanta-based label Terminus Records, Bryant isn't too comfortable with phone interviews. "She lives in a rural area, and she's afraid of getting robbed," she said.

Presumably, being famous enough to appear in a big-city newspaper must imply a certain amount of wealth and status in Talbot County, just east of Columbus. Or perhaps the explanation lies elsewhere. Bryant eventually reconsiders and endures a phone interview. She's certainly friendly, but it remains clear that Bryant just doesn't feel the need to play along, doesn't need the world at large -- the world outside of her lower Chattahoochee River Valley stomping grounds -- to validate her music.

"She's totally set and happy where she is," says Amos Harvey, who produced Fool Me Good. Harvey, based in Oxford, Miss., is a former tour manager for the Mississippi blues label, Fat Possum Records. "She lives in a rural setting, is not the most well-off, but she says, 'As long as I'm playing my songs, have some food and some water, I don't need much else.' She's satisfied with who she is."

Or, as she sings in "Precious Bryant Staggerin' Blues": "My name is Precious, y'all, you know I love my guitar/'Cause I play them old lowdown blues/That's what I keep my guitar for."

She's satisfied enough at home, apparently, that it took some coaxing from Harvey to get Bryant to record. "I thank Amos for that," Bryant says. "I really didn't want to do it, but he's the kind to push people. I just got lucky."

Both her self-assuredness and her distinctive musical talents owe to a supportive home life. One of nine children, her mother played piano and sang church songs. Her father played banjo, guitar, fiddle and fife; her uncle played country blues guitar; several male cousins were members of the Georgia Fife and Drum Band; and Bryant and her sisters formed a spiritual group, with Precious on guitar.

"It wasn't like, 'Hey gal, go get a job,'" Harvey says. "She was obviously nurtured, not just by her dad and uncle but by sisters and cousins as well."

Like any sibling in a large household, though, Bryant is quick to stake her claim as an individual. "I do my own thing. [My family members] do different things, but I play the straight-out blues."

There was no TV in the house. "We barely had a radio," says Bryant, who remembers the kerosene lamps that lit her home before electricity became available in her area. As a child, the radio had a profound influence on Bryant. DJs with stage names like Daddy Cool and Thin Man and Satellite Papa brought blues and early rock 'n' roll into her home from WCLS in Columbus. These influences, along with those of her family, helped formulate her distinctive style.

Folklorist George Mitchell was the first to record Bryant, back in 1969. Mitchell was working as a newspaper reporter in Columbus and, with his wife Cathy, was doing field recordings of local and regional folk artists on the weekends. A tip from Bryant's uncle led him to Bryant.

"At the time, she was living in Juniper, Ga., a little tiny town, one or two stores, a dot on the highway," Mitchell recalls. "She was in her late 20s. Even at that time, you didn't find many people who still did the old-time blues, and when you did, usually they were older. She was young [then 27 years old] and she was a woman, which was unusual. I met her and she sat down and started playing, and it sounded great. I'll never forget it, because she had her own unique sound."

Still, Bryant was not anxious to share her talents on a broad scale. Mitchell tried to get Bryant to travel to Columbus to record in a studio, but she wouldn't do it. And while she played locally for friends, both as a guitarist and in a gospel group with her sisters, more than a decade would pass before Mitchell could convince her to perform for a large public audience. When she did, at the Chattahoochee Folk Festival in Columbus in the early '80s, she was an immediate success, Mitchell recalls.

"That was the first time she had played for a wide audience, other than her community," he says. "I don't even know if she'd been to Columbus [before]. She was a big hit. She knows how to work a crowd and really involves the audience."

Bryant explains, "When you go and have a show, you've got to make people happy. Crack jokes, make them feel good, that's what I'm all about."

In 1984, Bryant agreed to come to Atlanta for the first time to play at the National Downhome Blues Festival at the Moonshadow Saloon. Within two weeks, she flew to Holland to perform at Blues Estaffette, the largest independently produced festival in Europe. For the first time, she rode on a plane, a train, a bus -- even an escalator.

She has since performed at festivals in Switzerland and Canada, and here at home in New York, Memphis and elsewhere. She's appeared on several CD compilations, including Georgia Blues, In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee River Valley and the National Downhome Blues Festival Vol. 1. The latter was reissued on CD by Southland Records in 1994 and is still in print.

In a twist on the "it's who you know" theory of music business success, producer Harvey dates a woman named Coulter Fussell, daughter of Fred and Cathy Fussell, close friends of Bryant, who live in Buena Vista, Ga. It was through Coulter that Harvey became aware of Bryant's work.

"I thought she was one of the best players and singers I'd heard," Harvey says, recalling the first time he heard Bryant. "Her voice is so pretty and sweet, but at the same time she can sing about rough, tough things the same way she can sing about pretty things. The good with the bad, the pretty with the ugly, that's what makes things real."

Eventually, Harvey arranged the deal with Terminus. Instead of a recording studio, which can be daunting for any performer, Harvey chose to record Bryant in the den of the Fussells' home. The room was a comfortable, natural setting, Harvey adds, and was conducive to recording, acoustically, thanks to shag carpeting, couches, wooden shelves and other accoutrements that softened the sound in the room.

Fool Me Good reveals a diverse cross-section of Bryant's craft. It features six originals as well as a number of spirituals and blues, many of them traditional, if unfamiliar. Included is "Broke and Ain't Got a Dime," Bryant's take on Blind Willie McTell's "Last Dime Blues"; "Black Rat Swing," which Bryant adopted after Mitchell sent her a couple of Memphis Minnie records; and the Little Willie John staple, "Fever."

"Almost all of the album is first takes," Harvey says. "She'd do 15 to 20 songs, and she was ready to go back home."

As time passes, in fact, Bryant seems even more resolute than ever to stay close to home. "I've got diabetes, and I can't run around like I used to," Bryant says. "I get blind, can't see, fall out ... I'm going to quit taking shows. I may take some, but it's not going to be too many ... Everywhere I go, people love me and I try to treat them the same, but they don't understand what I'm trying to fight off," she says, referring to her illness.

"I don't want to do what Koko Taylor did, collapse on the stage," she says, referring to the blues singer who fainted at her Chicago club in January, due to complications from diabetes and high blood pressure. "But I try to go as much as I can."

bryan.powell@creativeloafing.com

Precious Bryant performs Thurs., Feb. 28, at Blind Willie's, 828 N. Highland Ave. Beverly "Guitar" Watkins shares the bill. 9 p.m. Blind Willie's celebrates its 16th anniversary Fri.-Sat., March 1-2, with shows by harmonica troubadour Lazy Lester (Neal Pattman opens Friday) and a complimentary gumbo buffet 7:30-9 p.m. Saturday. Shows at 10 p.m. $10. 404-873-BLUE.

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