Thomas Hoyt Bryant, known to family and friends as “Slim,” met Perry Bechtel in Atlanta 1929. “I heard your record, ‘Wabash Blues,’ and I want to play it just like that,” he declared. “I can teach you that in 30 minutes,” the older man responded. “But if you want to play ’em all like that, you gotta take lessons.” That conversation changed Slim Bryant’s life – and the nature of country guitar.
In December 7, 2008, Bryant will be 100. Widely credited as the first country guitarist to infuse jazz and pop harmonies into the music, he’s the last living link between pre-World-War-II country music and the 21st century. In a performing career lasting nearly 30 years, he worked with two country icons in fiddler Clayton McMichen and singer Jimmie Rodgers, father of modern country music. Later, leading his own band in Pittsburgh, Bryant made broadcast history and became a regional institution. When that ended, he left a lasting impact teaching guitar to generations of Pittsburghers into the 21st century. Residing in the modest home he bought nearly 60 years ago in the suburb of Dormont, he remains healthy and lucid, a result of physical and mental calisthenics – and a mother who lived to be 104!
Little about Bryant fits conventional wisdom about early country performers. A product of the “New South,” he was born in Atlanta, the eldest child of Posey Bryant, an electrician who enjoyed old-time fiddling. Posey’s wife, Auroria, wrote poetry and played guitar in the formal parlor style popular in the late 19th century. “She sang and played (songs like), ‘In the Baggage Coach Ahead,’ a little bit of ‘Spanish Fandango’,” he says. Jim Scott, a black man who delivered ice to their home, also impressed Slim when he’d take a break, play Auroria’s guitar and, according to Slim, sing “whatever came into this head.”
Slim worked out his first guitar chords himself. “I got them from listening to records. We didn’t have a record player,” he says. “But the people across the street did.
After graduating high school in 1926, he seemed destined to follow his dad into an electrical career, working as an estimator for the Georgia Electric Company and spending his nights studying electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, all the while absorbing music through records and the rising medium of radio. Nick Lucas, the singer and guitarist known for the original hit recording of “Tip Toe Through The Tulips,” became his first guitar hero. Seeing him perform in Atlanta, playing a steel-string Gibson revealed to Bryant the full potential of the guitar. “I never heard anybody who could sing and then play a chorus,” he declares. “I liked his playing when he played a solo. It wasn’t real complicated or anything, but it was first.” His second hero is less surprising. “For one-string stuff, I loved Eddie Lang. He was great. Too bad he died at such a young age, but he had a great influence on me. I learned his jazz tunes and played ’em on the radio. Of course, there were other people, but those two were the basic guys I was influenced by.”
Atlanta became the birthplace of commercial recorded country music after local fiddler John Carson performed on WSB Radio and recorded “Little Old Log Cabin in The Lane” in 1923. Soon, a younger giant of old-time fiddling emerged – Clayton McMichen. Born in 1900, McMichen, nicknamed “The North Georgia Wildcat,” grew up in Atlanta and joined the recording “supergroup” Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, which included another pioneer country guitarist, Riley Puckett. While the group’s strong record sales boosted McMichen’s stature, he preferred playing pop and jazz with his other band, McMichen’s Melody Men. Slim, too, played in a local string band. “McMichen’s cousin, Elmer, and I and a boy by the name of Hoyt Newton and a banjo player by the name of Woods. We learned from each other. I got a book of chords and learned to play.” His first guitar, best he remembers, was a mahogany-bodied Martin Style 17 – the company’s first steel-string model. “I bought it at the Cable Piano Company for 30-odd dollars and paid (so much) a week on it. Perry Bechtel sold it to me. He was the salesman at Cable Piano.”
Bechtel was far more than that. Before moving to Atlanta, he’d earned an impressive reputation playing banjo and guitar with New York’s top pop orchestras. He later designed Martin’s famous 14-fret Orchestra Model (OM). In between his job at Cable Piano and teaching, he performed and recorded with Atlanta groups including McMichen’s Melody Men. Bechtel’s guitar solo on their recording of “Wabash Blues” led Slim to study guitar with him. “(Perry) could play tunes like a piano, not just one note,” he says. Over 16 months, starting in 1929, Bechtel utilized instruction books and customized lessons to suit Bryant’s needs. “He taught me how to make solos out of full chords and so forth,” he explains. “It gave me a good knowledge of the guitar.” Bechtel taught Slim whatever he wanted to know. “If I wanted to find out something, like how to make a D-minor chord a Dm7 chord, he’d tell me it was so many steps up on the scale. He had to write this music out – things he wanted me to remember, or tunes; he taught me by tunes mostly.
“I wrote a guitar solo called ‘Little Bit of This and That,’ that has ninth chords in it, and I learned them from him. So, if there was some chord that I wanted to know, he would show it to me, which made it easier to remember. That’s about the extent of music theory, except as I went on my own I got the sheet music and took some tunes that were difficult to play on guitar if you were playin’ full chord. ‘All The Things You Are’ – that’s one of my favorite songs. I got hooked on that tune. I got the music somewhere and learned it. It was that way with a lot of tunes I heard, that would be half in one key and half in another. And then there was the Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang stuff like ‘Wild Cat.’ You’re playin’ in A and all of a sudden you’re in D. I didn’t have any music for those tunes but learned to play the chords.”
He began writing pop-sounding songs like “Yum Yum Blues,” yet his ballad “Mother, The Queen of My Heart” was pure, sentimental country inspired by a conversation overheard in the coffee shop at downtown Atlanta’s Macy’s department store. “There was two guys sittin’ to the right of me and they started talkin’ about a poker game the night before. One said, ‘You know I’m never gonna play any poker again. I’m through with it.’ He told the story. He drew this card and saw his mother’s picture. And I thought, ‘Ahh, this would make a hell of a song!’ So I went home and I wrote it… just wrote what I thought.”
1930 became a year of transition. “We went over to (Clayton’s) house one night and sat down and played. He was gonna do a show on WSB in Atlanta, and he liked my playin’. I was takin’ lessons from Perry then. I played ‘Tip Toe Through the Tulips’ on (McMichen’s) show. Then we started makin’ personal appearances, one-nighters.” McMichen used his early nickname for his new band – the Georgia Wildcats – in May, 1931. From then on, Slim Bryant was a professional musician. Their first session for Columbia Records that October included “Yum Yum Blues.” The band lineup changed, but the Wildcats embarked on the peripatetic journey most bands made from town to town, signing on at any radio station that would have them. Settling at WCKY in Covington, Kentucky, in 1931, they crossed the Ohio River to join Cincinnati powerhouse WLW. With country musicians ineligible to join the Musicians’ Union, management decreed the Wildcats stick to country – no jazz or pop, considered the domain of union musicians. WLW officials, however, didn’t know one style from the other, Slim adds. “We didn’t pay a bit of attention. I went ahead and played all [the jazz] I wanted and nobody said anything.” After a late 1931 stay at KDKA in Pittsburgh, they set up in Cleveland.
In the summer of ’32, McMichen received a telegram in Cleveland from Jimmie Rodgers, country’s first singing star. They’d met on a theater tour through the Carolinas a few years earlier and Rodgers wanted the fiddler on his next session. McMichen accepted, suggesting Slim could also be helpful. Rodgers agreed and, toting his newest Martin, an 00-21, Slim headed east with McMichen. At Victor Records, Rodgers and label A&R man Ralph Peer heard Slim sing and play “Mother, the Queen of My Heart.” Rodgers decided to record it; Peer requested Bryant play guitar, enabling Rodgers, who was dying of tuberculosis, to focus his limited stamina on singing.
At the August 11, 1932 session, he easily replicated Rodgers’ trademark guitar style and popped off an effective single-string break on “No Hard Times Blues.” Peer, who hired a small pop orchestra for Rodgers’ next session on August 29, concocted a story to quash any questions from the New York musicians about Bryant’s union status. “(Peer) told these musicians I was Jimmie’s regular guitar player, we were goin’ to England and going to play in the vaudeville houses and that’s what we had in mind, too,” he says. Rodgers’ deteriorating health ended that notion and Slim, reading the sheet music with the others, effortlessly accompanied Rodgers on “The Hills of Tennessee” and “Miss The Mississippi and You.” Slim and McMichen also recorded on their own during the trip.
McMichen and Bryant reconstituted the Georgia Wildcats in Louisville that fall, around the time Slim bought his first Gibson. “They sold it to me for the dealer’s price – half off,” he recalls. The spring of ’33 saw them settling in at Chicago’s WLS National Barn Dance with a lineup including McMichen, Slim, and guitarist Jack Dunigan. By then, the two guitarists had signed an endorsement deal with Gibson, brokered by legendary sales manager Clarence Havenga. “Hell of a nice guy,” Slim recalls. The free guitars had a price, however. “He took our Martins,” he adds. “Gibson wouldn’t let us have them.” There went the 00-21 he used with Rodgers. “I never said or inferred that Gibson was better than Martin. It was a little bit different, and it was for free. So that made a difference. I liked that (archtop) sound. It wasn’t as loud. I don’t think it carried unless you played big chords. And when I was playin’ big chords, it fit with the music better.”
Onstage around Chicago, Bryant and Dunigan “were playing these Eddie Lang jazz tunes.” Often in the audience, an unknown 18-year-old named Les Paul drank it in. “I did an Eddie Lang (and Carl Kress duet), ‘Pickin’ My Way.’ I varied the introduction from the original – added to it. Les said to me, ‘That introduction, that’s not like the (original) music!’ I never played those tunes exactly like the (record). I played them like I felt like I was wantin’ to play ’em. Before I left, he got a job at WJJD under the name of Rhubarb Red.”
During his Chicago stay, Slim met future wife Mary Jane, whom he married in 1934. After spending time in New York, the Wildcats returned to Louisville in the spring of ’34. McMichen added Kentucky tenor banjoist Jerry Wallace; Slim brought his 20-year-old brother, Raymond (nicknamed “Loppy”), from Atlanta and taught him to play bass.
For a time, Slim and McMichen parted ways in 1936. He took Loppy, Dunigan, Wallace, and another fiddler and dubbed themselves Slim, Jack and the Gang and went to St. Louis. McMichen reorganized the Georgia Wildcats with 19-year-old Kentucky thumbpicking whiz Merle Travis. Slim had been through two L-5s by the time he arrived in St. Louis. In ’37, he acquired the one he owns today. Gesturing to it, he says, “When I was workin’ at KWK in St. Louis, the (L-5) I had before this one had a few scratches and stuff on it that I didn’t like. So I contacted Clarence Havenga and told him, ‘I want this guitar refinished. Send me one to play while it’s gone.’ He sent me this one to play and I sent (the worn instrument) to him. Well, about three months later, I called Havenga. I said, ‘Look, Clarence, I sent my guitar in to be refinished and you sent me that brand new one.’ He said, ‘Well, keep it!’ So that’s the third one they gave me.”
In early ’37, Slim, Jack and the Gang briefly returned to Pittsburgh and KDKA, where they left a good impression with management. While Loppy met his future wife there, the fiddler departed and local auditions produced a gifted local replacement in singer/fiddler Kenny Newton. Reuniting with McMichen in Louisville, the group began recording for Decca that summer. Over the next two years, seven New York sessions yielded an impressive blend of country, pop, and swing, “Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet” featured smooth vocal harmonies and a blazing chord solo from Slim, as did “Farewell Blues.” Slim’s jazz single-string and chord work complemented McMichen’s tight fiddling and loose vocals. That sounds like a variation on Bob Wills’ dance music, but the Wildcats played to radio and auditorium audiences. By 1939, with big dance bands in style, McMichen formed a second group – a 12-piece dance orchestra. Slim played with both, but seeing the big band as a losing proposition in Louisville, he and the Wildcats amicably parted ways with McMichen.
In Virginia, at Richmond’s WRVA, Slim and the group did well until a mid-1940 musicians’ union strike against the station idled them. Taking time off to visit families, Loppy Bryant and his wife arrived in Pittsburgh to visit her family and paid a courtesy call on KDKA, who wanted Slim and the band back. On August 10, 1940, Slim Bryant and the Georgia Wildcats joined the renowned 50,000-watt station and in June of ’41 became part of their new morning “Farm Hour,” performing between farm reports, sports, and news. “It lasted 19 years,” Slim explains. There wasn’t room for another commercial in there. The damn thing was sold out, sold out, and sold out!”
They became regional favorites, playing theaters, bandshells, fairs, carnivals, and amusement parks – until World War II gas and tire rationing crimped their travel. When Wallace joined the Marines, Slim added versatile accordionist Al Azzaro, who enhanced the band’s ability to play the polkas beloved in Western Pennsylvania. Wallace, stationed in the Pacific, wound up in a unit with renowned New York jazz and pop guitarist Al Caiola, later famous for his instrumental LPs and an Epiphone electric bearing his name. Caiola taught him to play guitar. After a brief period playing jazz in Louisville after his discharge, Wallace rejoined the Wildcats. With “take off” lead guitar becoming popular on country records during the War, Wallace put the Wildcats on the cutting edge. For his part, Slim waited until the ’50s to attach a DeArmond Rhythm Chief 1000 pickup to his L-5, explaining, “I didn’t use it on the radio because Jerry was playin’ (electric). “He did, however use it onstage and at dances, playing through an early Fender Super amp. In the late ’40s, Wallace used a blond Epiphone Triumph with attached DeArmond.
The band, which shortened its name to The Wildcats in 1946, were popular enough on KDKA to briefly host a nightly show broadcast nationwide on NBC. Recording proved problematic. After RCA Victor turned them down, the newly formed Majestic label in New York signed them, and Slim’s nostalgic original “Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny” became a strong regional hit. Majestic’s shaky national distribution, however, undermined its success, and by late ’47 the label was defunct. The Wildcats’ NBC program led to their recording 287 songs for the RCA’s Thesaurus Library. These were transcriptions – pre-recorded radio shows – pressed on 16″ discs and sold to subscribing stations. The material reflected the band’s full range of country, folk, and western favorites, current country and pop hits, originals and instrumentals and showcased their stature as one of America’s top country show bands, the kind of groups many cities had before and after the War. In Western Pennsylvania’s industrial cities, mining towns, and rural areas, Slim Bryant and the Wildcats became an integral part of the regional culture, able to entertain people who weren’t country fans. Slim agrees. “I was, in those days, the country music Lawrence Welk. If I’d have been onstage with four backup people, I’d have been on there six months and the end. So I figured ‘I’m gonna have four or five people who could cut the mustard, be a star on their own.’ And that’s how we lasted 19 years. We wanted to catch as many people as we could,” he adds. “And it paid off.”
Their stature led to an appearance with other Pittsburgh dignitaries on the January 11, 1949, inaugural broadcast of WDTV, Pittsburgh’s first commercial TV station. In ’51, they became monthly hosts of “Duquesne Showtime,” a local show featuring national stars performing in Pittsburgh-area theaters and clubs and showcasing the Wildcats’ versatility as both performers and accompanists. “When they brought (pop singer) Rosemary Clooney in, they didn’t have to have another band,” he remembers. Les Paul and Mary Ford, in town to perform, visited WDTV for an interview. “You ever meet a guy by the name of Slim Bryant?” the host asked. “He was my idol!” Les replied. Slim walked on for a reunion and some jamming.
All that led to “Slim Bryant and His Wildcats,” a weekly 15-minute Saturday night program, later expanded to a half-hour Friday nights over WDTV (rechristened KDKA in 1955). They acknowledged new trends, but on their terms. On a surviving ’56 kinescope, Slim opens with what he calls “some rock and roll” and tears into Red Foley’s “Plantation Boogie.” A record deal with MGM yielded a few singles and a square dance LP, but even appearances at major fairs and a few guest shots on ABC’s weekly “Ozark Jubilee” TV program couldn’t change the fact that local TV was eroding in the late ’50s, crowded by more prime-time network shows. Around 1959, “The Farm Hour” moved to recorded music, the TV show ended, and after nearly 25 years, so did the Wildcats. Slim and his wife, Mary Jane, opened a card and gift shop in Dormont in ’62, but he soon found himself back in music, teaching guitar to a local councilman’s son. Other students followed and he built a studio at the gift shop, attracting so many he had a waiting list.
Interviewed in 2002, when he still taught a few students, he explained his philosophy. “I’ll teach you to play the guitar; I’ll teach you to read music. You can play whatever you want. I don’t teach rock and roll. I used the Mel Bay system, and that is very thorough, and difficult. A lot of people don’t use it. I don’t neglect the country music,” he added. “But after you learn to play guitar, you can play what you want to.” Fiddle tunes became a teaching device. “They’re very hard to play on the guitar,” he said. “I pick out eight or 10 tunes – ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ ‘Turkey in the Straw’ and ‘Soldier’s Joy.’ I don’t teach ’em by written music. If they’ve got an ear enough, I teach ’em and they learn fingerin’ and pickin’ that way.”
A 2003 fall while clearing snow from his driveway left him with a broken hip at age 95. But while many at that age spend their remaining days in a nursing home, Slim, a widower since 1987, regained his mobility and returned home after 38 days. The teaching ended and a couple years ago, so did his guitar playing. “See those?” he says, pointing to two arthritic left fingers, “When you get them, you don’t play anymore. I usually kept my guitar on the dining room table. But when I’d play, those fingers would feel like the bone was slippin.'” His longevity and keen mind came from more than his genes. Beyond music, what he calls “my kicks” include two 22-minute daily calisthenics sessions, reading the Bible in Spanish and doing math, all to stimulate his brain cells. Still, he says, “I miss playing. Many times, I wake up in the middle of the night and think I’m playin’ some tune. I liked to play solos on the guitar.”
Facing his century year, just one question remains: is Slim Bryant satisfied with it all? “Yep! Yep!” he emphasizes. “I never got as good as I wanted to. But I believe every musician is like that.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s December 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.