- Number of Discs: 4
- Released: April 25, 1997
- Label: Bear Family
Perhaps the most difficult thing in writing about a box set like this is how to convey in words -- few or many -- the magic, wonder, and intimidating musicianship that is contained on these recordings. Over four CDs, the seeds, roots, branches, and trees of a musical partnership were formed and lived out on the public stage, and remain all but unknown to those who were not country music fans during the era. While one Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant compilation has appeared on Razor & Tie, as a single disc it only begins to offer the legend of this pair of musical innovators. For starters, Speedy West was the first picker to use a pedal steel guitar in the business in 1948 -- and he was doing it in L.A., not Nashville. It's true that Leon McAuliffe had played the steel guitar earlier while playing with Bob Wills, but none of those instruments had pedals. The partnership with Jimmy Bryant was forged in a barroom one night after Speedy's set, and it became of the most prolific and enduring in music history, ending only with the death of Bryant in 1980. The mutant, futuristic kind of Western swing that had extrapolated from Bob Wills' creation is enduring, still forward-looking, and truly out of time and space. As for partners who were undaunted, the adversity these cats encountered with their space age country bachelor pad music -- especially from the fascists in Music City -- was formidable. But they succumbed not a bit, used not one sound effect that wasn't already installed in the volume knob or reverb pedals, and ended up making dozens of records and playing sessions with everybody from Bing Crosby to Spike Jones to Jean Shepard to Merle Travis to the Billy May Orchestra.
The Bear Family box begins with the earliest solo sides in late September 1949, when Bryant cut four tracks with Corky Carpenter on vocals. They include "Just Remember," "Jelly Bean's Daddy," "Boogie Barn Dance," and "Gamblin' Money." These are unadulterated Western swing tunes with Bryant's penchant for tossing in Django Reinhardt chord voicings into the breaks. Next up is "Steel Strike," a single Speedy cut for Capitol as a sideman for an Eddie Kirk session. It's the beginning, here in 1950, of where he wants to go with his own music -- and that finally happens in September of that same year when he and Bryant cut "Bryant's Boogie" and "Red Headed Polka," two scathing instrumentals that put the focus on the strings to sing. It's still a mutation of Bob Will's Western swing, but it also prefigures rockabilly and slips bebop lines into its breaks to bring all the music of the day firmly into view. Over the course of 12 years, the pair cut an astonishing 91 sides -- and these are just the master takes -- with producer Ken Nelson in the Capitol studios. These do not include any of the work the pair did as sidemen for other artists, which would make up an entire box set of its own. Bear Family has been judicious enough to include one CD of this work, which ranges from their earliest work in 1949 with Merle Travis to a session in 1954 with Tennessee Ernie Ford. There are a number of alternate takes and unreleased masters included, copious liner notes by Rich Keinzle, and virtually every session detail available. But the main thing is the music, as the pair's innovative, fiery style begins to take shape and turns everything once thought of as "instrumental country music" on its head; listeners can hear the glee and surprise of the musicians themselves at their creations. Licks are played and runs are executed that neither man could have anticipated before his partner had spun off his own skittering skein of notes.
The music drives as hard as the best rock & roll and contains the knotty, full-blown improvisation one would expect from a hard bop group in full swing. And the arrangements are stellar; whether they were written by Nelson, guitarist Billy Strange, or Bryant and West, they prefigure and overstep everything else that was going on during those years. One listen to disc three's Hawaiian music -- beginning with track seven, "Hawaiian War Chant," and culminating some 20 tracks later in "Sunset at Waikiki" -- is enough to make anyone laugh, cough, stutter, and finally just shut up in disbelief at what has just transpired. And as if that weren't enough, the disc begins with a Western medley of classics such as "On the Alamo" and "The Night Rider," which thunders with a steel string fury so unruly, yet so completely precise, that it's a wonder it was executed by human beings -- but thank God it was. The staggered arpeggio sequences on the Western swing material in the mid-'50s has never been touched either for its pure musicological sophistication or it's pure fun quotient. And perhaps that's the most astonishing thing of all: No matter how outside the music of West and Bryant got, you could always dance to it. Try hanging that on the superchoppers of today -- in any genre -- and see what hind of hellish steps result! This set isn't for everybody, but it most definitely warrants the attention of the steel guitar freaks as well as Speedy & Jimmy fans. It should also nudge the curiosity of Western swing fans to look further west for inspiration and, finally, it should interest serious early rock & roll and bebop fans for its temperament and musical genius. In other words, this set is indispensable for anyone seriously interested in the history and development of American music. ~ Thom Jurek