TAMPA — She digs jazz and gospel, adores “The Sound of Music” and likes “Uptown Funk.” But one song alone remains her chart-topper. She sings it while she’s driving, or at home, or at MacDill Air Force Base ... and, O say, while standing on the ice at Amalie Arena, with Lightning fans hanging on her every note while an oversize American flag is passed around the arena’s lower bowl.
“I sing this song every day of my life,” U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sonya Bryson said. “I mean it. Every day. It just comes to me. And I love it. It’s not just the national anthem to me. It’s my song. It’s my country, man. I love this place.”
Bryson, an alto, has made her clear, no-frills delivery of “The Star-Spangled Banner” a fixture at Lightning games. She’ll be on the carpet tonight, in uniform, next to the color guard, when Tampa Bay begins its playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings. Bryson, who in September will retire after 20 years of military service, has become a fan favorite and a bit of a lucky charm for the Lightning.
“It’s our routine,” Lightning center Brian Boyle said. “The color guard is there. And Sonya is singing. She’s in the military and we have military heroes coming in. To me, it’s about respect. You stand up straight and you try not to move. It helps you focus and appreciate how fortunate we are. It’s a brief thought, but it’s there.”
“The uniform doesn’t hurt, but she’s just got such power and emotion,” said Lightning season-ticket holder Kevin Raymer, who sits near the tunnel Bryson uses to take the ice. “She doesn’t get too fancy,” said Raymer’s wife, Tresa. “I hate when they over-sing.”
Bryson, a Greenville, S.C., native and former high school hurdler and cheerleader, was lovingly dubbed “The Mouth From the South” by one of her commanding officers in Korea. She has performed the anthem in public more than a thousand times (No. 1,000 came Dec. 4, before a 5-0 Lightning win over Buffalo). The song grabs her. She sees no need to add garnish.
“I just think when you’re giving homage to a nation, sometimes all the flowery stuff takes away from the thought you’re trying to convey,” Bryson said. “You’re saying, ‘And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.’ You need to focus on that thought ... that our flag was still there. That’s when I get misty-eyed. I fight back tears every single time.”
Bryson, 48, a mother of three (she’ll become a grandmother in October), has spent four years at MacDill with the 6th Air Mobility Wing. She oversees maintenance plans, scheduling and documentation.
Her first anthem in public came in 2003, at an Air Force recruiting event in Oklahoma City. She first sang at a Lightning game in 2013. Last season, she sang before Tampa Bay’s playoff games against Montreal. This season, the Bolts are 19-6 with Bryson at the microphone. Her biggest thrill came last August at MacDill, when she performed the anthem for President Obama when he came to confer with military commanders.
“I was a little nervous,” Bryson said.
National Hockey League clubs have a thing for anthem singers. Their voices become synonymous with teams. In Chicago, Jim Cornelison’s tenor voice brings down the house before Blackhawks games, like his predecessor, the thundering Wayne Messmer. In Boston, fist-pumping 75-year-old Rene Rancourt has performed at Bruins games since 1976.
“I learned the anthem listening to Rene Rancourt,” said Boyle, who grew up in the Boston area.
In the 1970s, Canadian tenor Roger Doucet became a legend performing a bilingual version of ‘O Canada’ at Montreal Canadiens games. Doucet’s singing could bring tears to eyes.
“He was powerful,” said Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, who coached the Canadiens to five Stanley Cup wins. To this day, Bowman will be driving in his car and pop in an audio cassette of Doucet singing the Canadian anthem. “I like a good, stirring rendition. Who doesn’t?”
By the way, Bryson has never done double duty before Lightning games against Canadian clubs.
“I’ve learned ‘O Canada,’ but it’s against protocol to perform another nation’s anthem in military uniform,” she said. “Maybe when I’m out of the military and if I can get in here next season, I could do both.”
In 1969, the Philadelphia Flyers, looking for a patriotic change of pace, sometimes switched out the national anthem for a recording of “God Bless America,” by Kate Smith. Over the years, the Flyers became nearly unbeatable when “God Bless America” was played. On occasion, Smith performed the song in person, including before Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins. Hall of Famer and future Lightning founder Phil Esposito, a star for Boston, tried to thwart Kate karma, presenting Smith with roses after she sang.
“I told her, ‘Not tonight, big lady,’” Esposito said.
The Flyers raised the Stanley Cup for the first time after a 1-0 win.
Bryson hasn’t heard those legendary anthem singers. And she didn’t know hockey before she joined Lightning pregames.
“Zero dollars and zero cents,” Bryson said. “All I knew is that they fought a lot and that it was really exciting. But I’m learning.”
She learned singing in Greenville.
“My mom says that when I was little, she’d leave the room, and I would get my dolls, put them in front of me, and I would sing to them in the crib,” Bryson said. “She had no idea what I was singing. It wasn’t words. Just noise.”
Now Bryson sometimes gets recognized by fans.
“Hey, you’re the anthem lady!”
“People say a lot of nice things, but what makes me feel the best is when they thank me for my (military) service,” Bryson said. “That’s one of those things that goes to my heart.”
The song remains the same.
“I’ll sing it as long as I can,” Bryson said. “Until my eyes close.”