By its strictest definition, Otis Taylor is not a traditional bluesman.
And that’s a good thing.
He doesn’t hail from Mississippi or Chicago. Instead, he calls Colorado home.
His songs, while they do deal with broken hearts and shattered dreams, are not your run-of-the-mill ‘my wife up and left me’ kind of tunes. Instead, they touch on topics that few artists have much desire to tackle these days. Things like lynchings, homelessness and the dysfunctional government, along with other socially-relevant themes.
And while you’ll certainly hear plenty of guitar on Taylor’s albums, you’ll also hear djembe, cornet, fiddle and banjo playing woven into the thick, shag-like texture of his songs.
All that, with an occasional gut-wrenching howl and shriek thrown in for good measure.
Those are the main ingredients Taylor uses to cook up his batch of Trance Blues.
In other words, Otis Taylor marches to his own drum beat and is not afraid to travel down paths normally marked as “Do Not Trespass” in the blues world.
But ignore the man at your own risk, because Otis Taylor is one heck of a tour guide.
He consistently has managed to create some of the most authentic, real-deal blues going over the course of the past decade, blues that seem to blur the line between the Delta, the Appalachians and the western African savannahs.
Just a couple of days after his newest album Otis Taylor’s Contraband (Telarc) hit the streets, Blues Blast caught up with Taylor for a glimpse into his creative process.
Blues Blast: I know it’s only been on the street for a couple of days at this point, but how has the initial reaction been to Otis Taylor’s Contraband?
Otis Taylor: The reviews have been good. I’m very lucky. We’ve gotten some major reviews, like in The New Yorker. That’s pretty major. And it got four stars in Mojo. My last album got five stars in Mojo, and it’s hard to get into Mojo in the first place, so to have two albums in a row in there, I was pretty excited about that. And it’s gotten attention on a lot of blogs and things.
BB: One of the songs that grabbed my attention was “Blind Piano Teacher” (off Contraband). It’s what I would call a classic Otis Taylor kind of song.
OT: That seems to be (most people’s) favorite song on the album. I’m very sappy … I’m 240 pounds, but I do have a sappy side. I like French love songs. And I try and tell the story with just a few words. Then you can take it where you want it. A reviewer said, ‘well, he didn’t say what nationality the man was (in “Blind Piano Teacher”).’ Well, I didn’t have to if she (the piano teacher) was black. He must be white, or why would I say she was black with ebony skin and blonde, blonde hair?
BB: With all the social and internet media these days, I bet it can be tough to keep track of just who all is reacting to your work and what all they’re saying about it.
OT: Well, my thing on Facebook is, the only people that make money off it is Facebook. But I do love YouTube. When I want to study up on something, I hit it and you can find all kinds of videos on people. It’s like going to a video library, which we didn’t used to have. I really enjoy that and sometimes get lost on YouTube. I’ll start off with Muddy Waters and end up watching the Beach Boys. Then I wonder, how did I get there? I’m like a YouTube jumper. I can spend hours on it.
BB: Your music is so eclectic and really without borders or boundaries. Do you feel comfortable being labeled as a bluesman?
OT: I did that. I did that because … I am a bluesman – a singer/songwriter bluesman. See … it’s institutional racism. Like Robert Johnson is a bluesman, right? Well, Robert Johnson was a singer/songwriter. See what I’m saying? Bob Dylan was a singer/songwriter. Howlin’ Wolf was a singer/songwriter. Willie Dixon is a total singer/songwriter. See what I mean?
BB: Digesting your music is a lot like peeling an onion. There’s so many layers, to not only the music, but to the lyrics, as well. How do you go about crafting a song?
OT: (Laughing) You want me to give away all my producing secrets?
BB: I guess a good starting point would be, what inspires you to write a song?
OT: Usually a dream – just a thought. But talking about lyrics, it looks like I’m going to be doing this Robert Johnson 100 Year Anniversary March 6 at The Apollo, with a lot of people, and so I’ve been studying up on Robert Johnson some more. One of my favorite songs (of Robert Johnson) is “Hellhounds on my Trail.” And he has a line in it, ‘If today was Christmas Eve, if today was Christmas Eve, and tomorrow was Christmas Day.’ And I just love that line. And so I’ve been thinking that maybe I’ve been influenced by Robert Johnson and didn’t even know it. You know, word-wise. I mean that’s so simple, but so powerful. I just thought about that line all day yesterday.
BB: Do phrases like that, for example lead to you …
OT: No, no. But I was just thinking about … I’m into simplicity when I write. A lot of people think I get it from my parents, because they were bee-boppers, or avant-garde. But a lot of Appalachian things are simple, too.
BB: I guess you could run into problems when you’re over-thinking things when it comes to songwriting?
OT: Well, my style is, I just try to paint a picture. Paint a picture of like, say, a red car. OK, somebody sees that red car. Then they might say, well, that red car has white seats because the guy was rich. Then they think about what the rest of that car looks like. Did it have pinstripes on it? I just introduce the car and then hope they take the car from there. I have a line in a song (“Little Betty”) that goes, ‘it looks like a Chevy, but runs like a Ford.’ What does that mean? You can keep on thinking about something like that if you want to. Once you start visualizing lines in your own mind, you kind of start writing the song, too. At least that’s what I hope. I’m not trying to get too deep here, but I never try to tell people what to think. I’m not a protest singer. I try to tell real stories.
BB: I get the idea of your songs telling stories. It seems like the folk scene in the 60s was full of artists telling stories about what’s going on around us.
OT: I started off with folk music, see. I learned to play music at the Denver Folklore Center.
BB: That makes sense. So you were exposed to that kind of music at a formulative time?
OT: I was exposed to a lot of jazz at home and folk music outside of the house.
BB: Your music is comprised of so many instruments that it’s hard to keep track of all of them. One thing you sure don’t hear a whole lot of in the blues though, is the banjo. Or cornet. How do you go about incorporating instruments like that into your music?
OT: The process is to find the right instrument on the right song that feels natural. And that’s what I’m looking for. I did a film score once using an oboe. That day, I just liked that sound. But the object is to make it feel natural – almost like where people don’t realize they’re listening to cornet or pedal steel or violins and cellos. The idea is for them to hear it, but not to hear it. If you hear it, you hear it too much, you know?
BB: Kind of feel it, not hear it?
OT: I don’t like to push things on people. I want it to be natural. That’s why I like to keep things simple.
BB: Does that philosophy kind of sum up the trance blues?
OT: No, trance music has nothing to do with the instruments; it has to do with style – no cord changes. It’s like ‘row, row, row your boat,’ it just goes in a circle, which makes it a trance tune. The first song on the album (“The Devil’s Gonna Lie”) has no cord change, but there’s a lot of stuff going on. And it helps to stay in the pocket. That’s how you get the trance feel. Voodoo music is just drums, but that’s the heaviest trance music there is. It’s religious for people.
BB: Does that kind of songwriting style come natural to you, or do you have it work at it?
OT: There again, it comes naturally. I don’t read music, so I like to keep things simple. If I could read music, I’d get all crazy.
BB: You’re up for a Blues Music Award in the category of Instrumentalist – Other, for your banjo playing. At this point in your career, do those kinds of awards mean anything to you?
OT: It means I get to go to the party! But you can’t lose total perspective, because one day you might not get invited to the party and go, whoa! What happened? I’ve been invited to that party for a lot years, so what happens when I’m not invited? But my claim to fame is, I’ve been nominated like 18 times and have only won twice. I remember when I won the second time; it broke my 14-nomination losing streak. I was doing good, going for the most-nominated, never-won thing and then that had to get broken. But really, I’m happy to just be acknowledged for it. It’s good advertising for the banjo.
BB: Yeah, the banjo doesn’t get a whole lot of love in the blues, does it?
OT: It doesn’t, but that’s where the blues came from.
BB: Speaking of instruments, how cool is it to have a signature model guitar (Santa Cruz acoustic)?
OT: Pretty cool. I also have a banjo named after me, too. It’s an Ome banjo and it’s called the Otis model. And then I have an electric banjo named after me called the Otis Banjoblaster, by Blue Star guitars.
BB: How did you come to have a banjo named after you?
OT: Well, the first Blue Star model I got several years ago. It’s an interesting story. I was at a folk alliance in Toronto and had a booth there, trying to get gigs and stuff. And Pete Seeger walked by and heard my CD and the first song had a banjo on it. He said, ‘that’s really cool.’ So we started talking and I ended up hanging out with him for eight hours. Then while we’ll walking around the conference looking at instruments, Elderly was there and he (Seeger) said, ‘Otis, you should look at this electric banjo. You’ll like this.’ So I sat down and picked it up and played for 15 seconds and said, ‘I’ll buy one.’ So after I had it shipped, I wanted to know who made it. So I found out and talked to the guy and then sent him a video of me playing it at a concert. And he freaked out. He said he wanted to make me a signature model banjo. He had no idea his instrument could sound like that. And with Ome, I’ve known them and they’ve sponsored me for awhile and they finally made me a signature model.
BB: And the guitar?
OT: This guy named Willie Carter that worked at Santa Cruz Guitars at the time saw me at the NAMM show and wanted to get me involved. And when I decided to, I called him and told him, ‘I know what I want, Willie. I don’t want any frets past 14.’ He said, ‘Can you hold for a second?’ Five minutes later he comes back and says, ‘OK, we’re going to do it.’ I think it caught them off guard. But really, I don’t play past the 14th fret on an acoustic guitar, so why would I want any more frets than that on my signature model? Because it looks pretty? It’s really just a waste of metal. So you could say it’s a “green” guitar. That fits in well with the scene in Boulder.
BB: Any other Otis Taylor signature instruments in the works? Mandolin or anything?
OT: (laughing) No, no, I decided to stop there.
BB: How is the blues scene around Colorado?
OT: Well, after I got signed, I played with Eddie Turner and Kenny Passarelli, and when that band broke up, Eddie got a record deal with my old record company (NorthernBlues), which was good. And Dan Treanor got a deal with my old record company, too. And then Lionel Young won the International Blues Challenge for solo and for band, so we have a little bit of a blues scene here. And I just played at (late Colorado bluesman) John-Alex Mason’s memorial service in Colorado Springs a couple of weeks ago. And there’s a big jamband scene here, with groups like String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon.
BB: Tell me a little bit about your daughter Cassie. I know she’s been a part of several of your albums and tours, but she’s got her own thing going on, too.
OT: It’s cool, but I’m like a let’s-get-on-with-it kind of father. We had to cut her loose, because she’s 25 now. It’s time for her to get it done. We’ll see how badly she wants it. She’s so talented that she could just coast. People have no idea how good a songwriter she is. She’s way better than me. She’s more accessible than me – I’m too hardcore. But she’s young and comes at it from a different vantage point. But she’s a really good film editor, too. She’s talented in a lot of ways and she just has to figure out what she wants to do. When you’re a little kid and your first concert is with your father in front of a couple of thousand people, that doesn’t give you much of a traveling all over the country, sleeping in a van kind of vibe, you know? She’s not had that kind of experience yet, but she’s getting ready to.
BB: After releasing as many albums as you have, in what has really not been a long period of time, are you still as inspired to create new works as you where when you first started?
OT: Well, yeah, but it gets harder. Creativity-wise, it gets harder. I want my albums to be different, but I want to keep my style going. And that gets hard. I’ve done 12 albums. And if your new album is like your last album, people go, ‘Why bother?’ And if it’s too different from your last one, people go, ‘What are you doing?’ So it gets harder to maintain that balance the farther you go along. I never want people to say that I never do anything different. If you’re a painter, you wouldn’t want to hear people say that your new painting looks just like the last one you did, you know? That’s the challenge. But I’m up for it. I mean, I have to be a little crazy already to do the sort of non-commercial stuff that I do anyway.
BB: So I assume you don’t have any plans to climb to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts anytime soon?
OT: If I could just even get on Billboard … I think I’ve only charted once and that was when they printed every other week. And I made it the week they didn’t print. I was going to frame it. But “Ten Million Slaves” (from the Public Enemies soundtrack and first heard on Taylor’s Recapturing the Banjo album) was at number one on iTunes three times. So I’m happy I was song of the week on iTunes. I have that bookmarked, so maybe I can frame that sometime.”
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2012