The blues brothers: Bryants keep family tradition alive with blend of music

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

The Bryant brothers -- Dave and Tony -- have been playing their own style of "old school" blues in Oxford since they were both children, but they'll achieve a milestone of sorts on Feb. 18 when they perform at Oxford College.

"This will be our first time at Oxford College," said Tony Bryant, 44, who with his brother will play at a concert as part of the events honoring Grammy Award-winning musicologist (and former University of Georgia professor) Art Rosenbaum. "I used to run around on the campus over there and play tennis -- Oxford students are the ones who taught me to play tennis. I haven't played in a long time, but I still swing a pretty mean racket."

"It feels great to be invited to play at the college," added Dave Bryant, 50, also known as "Guitar Dave." "My great-grandparents were from Oxford and our mama was from Oxford and it's been a beautiful place to live."

The brothers come from a long line of blues purveyors. Their great grandmother, the late "Dip" Weaver, taught the blues to their grandfather Curley Weaver, and their mother, Cora Mae "Sweet Petunia" Bryant was a well-regarded blues belter until her death in 2009.

"My great-grandmother taught people the blues and gospel, and Anthony and I both play the blues, although I like to play gospel music, too," said Dave Bryant, who began playing guitar at the age of 11. "I play the blues the way my granddaddy did -- from the old school."

"We've been playing all around the house since we were kids -- we're fourth-generation musicians," added Tony Bryant. "Our great-grandmother taught her son Curley Weaver and others, like Robert Hicks -- also known as Barbecue Bob -- who was from the Walnut Grove-Loganville area.

"My mother taught me everything I know. When we were kids, different players would come to the house and Mama would sing. I've had the blues all my life. The blues are a part of me."

Also on the bill will be Rosenbaum, who won a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Historical Album for the compilation "Art of Field Recording Volume I: Fifty Years Of Traditional American Music" and was nominated for Best Album Notes the same year.

He has spent 50 years studying, recording and compiling roots, country and folk music.

He's also a celebrated visual artist and plays a variety of stringed instruments.

Rosenbaum and Tony Bryant have crossed paths before as Bryant produced a video in Athens (where Rosenbaum resides) also featuring Atlanta blues legend Chicago Bob Nelson, a harmonicat who many remember from his days 25 years ago with the Heartfixers, which showcased the guitar stylings of a young Tinsley Ellis.

"Chicago Bob and I are coming out with a CD and we're working on another one," said Tony Bryant, who appears live with Nelson, as a solo performer or with his own band. "Bob's still kicking -- he ain't kicking high, but he's still kicking."

Tony Bryant's first album, "Blues By Blood," was released last year, and he said his latest -- titled "Corn Whiskey" -- should come out in March.

The blues performed by the Bryants is the music at its grassroots. Both play vintage instruments and generally eschew electric tools, and Tony Bryant said he plays only his compositions.

"My mother taught me that I needed to do my own songs," said Tony Bryant, who favors a 1950 Kay acoustic guitar and counts icons Blind Willie McTell, the Rev. Gary Davis and Son House as integral influences. "The songs that people wrote had a meaning for the person who wrote it. In my songs, I say what's going on in my life. I can't tell another man's story.

"I play the old-style blues and I give people what they want. If someone wants a band, I've got a band. If someone doesn't have as much money, I'll play solo. Give the people what they want and keep them happy and you'll keep working."

"Tony plays a lot of songs and I really don't write songs, so I'll mostly be playing behind him," said Dave Bryant of the upcoming Oxford performance. "I can play anything behind anybody. And I'll probably play a few songs myself -- mostly songs that have been passed down that I've put my stamp on."

Tony Bryant recently performed with Rosenbaum at Wesleyan College and said he'd like to get on the college circuit.

"It's like a history lesson," he said. "When I came up, you'd see just a man and his guitar and maybe a harmonica player... We did Wesleyan College in Macon and it was an amazing show. We really got a good response. Afterwards, I couldn't talk to the grownups because the young people hijacked me and were asking me questions. I'm happy to see the kids interested in the blues."

Art Rosenbaum, Tony Bryant and "Guitar Dave" Bryant will perform at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 at Williams Hall on the Oxford College campus. There is no admission charge.