Here's the kind of gargantuan production that only Bear Family in Germany has usually undertaken for vintage American country artists: a three-CD set, encompassing 75 songs and nearly three hours of music recorded by guitar great Jimmy Bryant from 1950-1967. This is on Sundazed, however, and it's good to see an American label taking a chance on a major archival collection on a not-too-famous performer that by its nature is going to rule out casual buyers. Many listeners will be sated with a single-disc compilation of Bryant's work (particularly the tracks on which he collaborated with pedal steel guitar master Speedy West), and the wholly instrumental format might make this hard to listen to in one sitting even for committed fans. But Bryant's guitar is consistently inventive -- and unsurpassed in its sheer speed -- throughout these sides, making it worthwhile not just for specialist Bryant and country swing fans, but also for students of virtuoso guitar in general. The highlights of this package are, as you would expect, Bryant's 1950s Capitol collaborations with West, which take up about half the three CDs. These two brought out the best in each other, and if West might be a little better known due to the relatively exotic flavors of his flashy steel playing, Bryant was his equal for mind-bending fluidity. Some of the compositions are less memorable than others, but at their best, as on "Bryant's Bounce," "Bryant's Boogie," "Stratosphere Boogie," "Pickin' the Chicken," and "Arkansas Traveler," they're truly astounding, landmark achievements in high-paced country swing and boogie music.
Although much Bryant-West material has been reissued elsewhere (particularly on the Bear Family box Flamin' Guitars), this set does offer much even to those who have other Bryant-West anthologies in its inclusion of 37 tracks that Bryant recorded without West in the 1960s. True, these weren't up to the groundbreaking level of the earlier recordings, due to both generally less impressive compositions and less sterling instrumental support. Bryant's skills and speed, however, were undiminished, at times yielding tracks on par with anything he recorded, like the dazzling "Laughing Guitar" and "Blow Your Hat in the Creek," and the shrieking remake of "Whistle Stop." At other times some contemporary trends impinged on the arrangements, not always to bad effect; he sounds a little like the Ventures on 1962's "Ha-So," and between Link Wray and Duane Eddy on "Long Walk Home." It's not always enjoyable when touches of exotica and easy listening jazz make their way into the proceedings, though Bryant almost always maintains command of the tracks, with help from some highly esteemed Hollywood and Nashville session players, including Charlie McCoy, Barney Kessel, and Shelly Manne. And even hardened Bryant collectors will find something new here in the form of five previously unreleased 1966-1967 recordings, including an impressive remake of "Frettin' Fingers" (the 1955 original, done with West, is also here). The 32-page booklet, with extensive commentary by country expert Rich Kienzle as well as some appreciative memories from family members, is assembled with as much high-standard care as the rest of the release.