Sharps & flats

Session men Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant hot-licked Hollywood -- and escaped the long arm of Nashville.


David Hill
June 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Some of the finest country music ever produced was recorded not in Nashville but in Los Angeles, specifically at the Capitol Records tower on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. From this futuristic building, designed to look like a stack of records, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and others -- under the direction of Ken Nelson, Capitol's in-house country producer -- created a hard-driving West Coast sound that relied heavily on twangy Fender electric guitars and pedal steels.

In the early 1950s, Capitol hired ace guitar players Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West to play backup behind Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr. Bryant, a transplanted Georgian, played a Fender Broadcaster, one of the first solid-body guitars. West, from Missouri, played pedal steel. Together, they created a sort of manic country bebop -- think of them as the Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie of country music.

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Their music was all but forgotten by everyone except hardcore collectors and revivalist musicians until four years ago, when Razor & Tie released "Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant," which contains some of their best Capitol recordings, produced in the 1950s by Nelson and, for the most part, tossed off between backup sessions. Now, the label has issued volume two, and it's as wonderful as the first. "Two of a Kind" sounds like some lost Charlie Parker tune. "West of Samoa" is other-worldly, with strange bird sounds emanating from West's pedal steel. The mid-tempo "T-Bone Rag" shows Bryant at his most inventive, while "China Boy" demonstrates just how incredibly fast the man could play. "Deep Water" is sublime balladry, while "Pushin' the Blues," from 1955, is pure rock 'n' roll. The album ends with the appropriately named "Caffeine Patrol," a revved-up ditty that lasts all of one minute, 48 seconds.

West and Bryant were fortunate to live and work in Los Angeles, far from the powers that be in Nashville. Music this adventurous could never have come out of the studios on Music Row.


David Hill

David Hill is a freelance writer in Denver.

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