"I ain't got nothin' but the blues."
That sentence is open to different interpretations. Certain individuals—like the soft-focus shut-ins of late-night infomercials—might take it to mean, "I am incapable of feeling anything but crushing depression as a lifestyle." But somebody with a lighter disposition might read that same phrase as, "Don't worry, I'm a bit down in the mouth today, and it's no big deal."
I've turned those seven words over in my mind a lot these past few days. Which is odd, because a better variation to describe my relationship to this idiom is, "I don't know nothin' 'bout the blues." I vaguely recall a myth about Robert Johnson selling his soul for a handful of magic beans and am not ignorant to the showbiz advantages of tagging "Blind" before your surname, but the blues is hardly my area of expertise. There are music critics who can rattle off the catalog number of any side Howlin' Wolf ever cut, and then there are those who know every 12-inch remix of Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)." I'm definitely in the latter camp.
But this week, I came down with a rotten case of the blues, mostly due to a monumental load of grown-up responsibilities: scrambling to file my taxes before the Aug. 15 extended deadline; researching affordable health care (ha!) since my COBRA ran out; getting my poor Toyota a tune-up. All of these tasks were time-consuming, and none was remotely amusing (except occasionally waffling over what constitutes a legit business expense, i.e., "If I write about watching porn, is the $49.99 I spent on the Hot Cops I & II DVD deductible?"). Consequently, I found myself feeling overwhelmed and under a bit of a black cloud.
"The potency of pop music derives from its immediacy and intimacy, empowering this music to move us on a deep level and in a way that few other artistic mediums can," writes Will Friedwald in his new Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs (Pantheon). I concur wholeheartedly. Which is why, when I'm feeling foul, I can't listen to anything at all. Happy music merely makes me bitter that I'm not in better spirits, but deliberately playing bummer records seems self-indulgent. Compared to some unfortunate wretch with no food or shelter, what right have I to moan "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen?" Until this week, the blues were the last type of music I would've ever considered playing when feeling low.
Thank goodness, then, for Precious Bryant and her recent Fool Me Good (Terminus Records). I don't know what unseen hand guided mine to pop this, or any, CD into the stereo this week—I almost begged my massage therapist to turn off the Windham Hill soundtrack during our regular session because it was too abrasive—but I am grateful. Fool Me Good had been sitting around my apartment, untouched, for months, but patience is definitely part of Precious' bag: It's been 30-odd years since this Georgia native first garnered public attention, yet the album—which bowed in January—is the 60-year-old's first proper release.
"I said my name is Precious/You know I love my guitar," she sings on "Precious Bryant Staggerin' Blues," and that declaration is affirmed in her simple yet articulate playing on the 15 tracks here. Bryant first picked up her instrument at age 6, and she grew up surrounded by a variety of influences: Delta blues, fife and drum corps, Baptist gospel, even early rock 'n' roll. It all filters into this set, which moves effortlessly from originals to low-key takes on standards (including "Fever" and "When the Saints Go Marching In") and well-chosen blues fare such as "Broke and Ain't Got a Dime" and "Black Rat Swing."
My boyfriend recently complained that he doesn't care for the blues because of its reliance on simple lyrical structures: "They just repeat the same things over and over!" But in my downtrodden mindset, Precious Bryant's thoughtful way with these repetitions—subtly stressing different words each time—had a remarkably soothing effect on my spirits, almost like some form of mantric chanting. Her voice is a quiet yet assured instrument with a sprightly quality that belies her years.
Fool Me Good was recorded live, with no overdubs, in Precious' living room (draped with quilts to create a makeshift studio) in rural Talbot County, Ga. So powerful is the resulting simplicity that, with each spin of this disc, I found my foot-long to-do list of unpleasantries and the attendant bad mood ebbing away. My inconsequential little problems once again seemed like exactly that. So the next time the bad vibes start to snowball, I know exactly what CD I'll reach for. Thanks to Precious Bryant, "I ain't got nothin' but the blues" has taken on new meaning, and "nothin'" is plenty for me.