Otis Taylor on ‘One Million Slaves,’ ‘Open These Bars,’ ‘Resurrection Blues,’ others: Gimme Five

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Find out more about Otis Taylor’s creative impetus, as he explores signature cuts from his new album and a catalog that’s quickly growing in stature. Taylor, after an early period of musicmaking in a series of teen-era blues-rock bands, left the stage from 1977 until 1995 — only to restart his career with an attendant burst of avant-garde creativity.

Contraband, which takes its title from the name given to runaway slaves who escaped across Union lines during the Civil War, follows and then expands upon the uniquely modern Colorado-based bluesman’s tradition of heart-rending narratives and brilliantly complex instrumentation — all woven together inside of a pounding, trance-like groove. He has quickly become one of the most exciting and original voices in a genre badly in need of both …

“RESURRECTION BLUES,” (WHITE AFRICAN, 2001): A stand-out cut on the project that introduced Taylor’s brand of bone-chilling trance blues to a wider audience. The album, which ended up earning four W.C. Handy nominations on the way to best new artist debut honors, was brutally frank in its discussion of a series of devastating twists of fate – from an old South lynching (“Saint Martha Blues”) to the plight of the homelessness (“Hungry People”) to the desperate feeling of being unable to afford care for a dying child (“3 Days and 3 Nights”). On a song-cycle filled with them, however, Taylor has called “Resurrection Blues” – told from the point of view of Jesus, as he contemplates crucifixion – his most intense composition ever.

OTIS TAYLOR: The album started out slow. Most albums, the first song is a fast song – a more “up” song. I started off slow and then I got slower – and then I got slower. And then I got darker and darker. I started off with a lynching, then “Resurrection Blues” – about a guy who’s dying. Then I did “Three Days and Three Nights,” about a guy watching his daughter die – you know, “if I fall asleep, Jesus will hold your hand.” Those were some of my best lines, I think. It was just dark. Most people wouldn’t do something like that. Blues fans like it, but they kind of didn’t, at the same time: “Nice album, but he ain’t playing at our festival.” I don’t think there was a big commercial appeal for it. I was named entertainer of the year, and I only got two blues festivals that year. They weren’t ready for it; they still aren’t. People are still having trouble with what I do.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Otis Taylor discusses the state of the blues today, career intersections with Tommy Bolin and Gary Moore — and the forgotten African-American legacy surrounding the banjo.]

“OPEN THESE BARS,” (CONTRABAND, 2012): The longest cut on Taylor’s forthcoming album takes the listener into the relentless, harrowing loneliness of a jail cell as a black man contemplates an imprisonment simply for looking at a white woman in the dangerous darkness of Jim Crow America. Riven by fear, Taylor’s character can only cry, with a resigned helplessness, “Let me go, let me go, let me go.” Over and over, he says these searing words – knowing, as do we, that they will simply echo forever off the stone walls around him.

OTIS TAYLOR: My albums can be designed to take you on a heavy journey. But what do they use in Hollywood to get the movie going? Music. So music is really just a path for my words. There was a time when black people couldn’t say what they wanted to say. Luckily, I’ve come of age in a time when I can do that. I don’t use a lot of words either, so that makes it that much more intense. Then I say them like mantras. It can be cryptic at times, I guess. But I’m not any darker than Appalachian people. I don’t know what it is, but people aren’t used to hearing things like that in the blues – even though the blues are supposed to be sad music. I don’t know what happened. It was like blues fans got a little too happy with the music.

“WALK ON WATER,” (TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION, 2003): Part of a turbulent and striking album of blues turned almost inside out by scorching psychedelia and fever-dream narratives. After years away from the music, Taylor was creating now at a furious pace, and his third album in three years seemed to lead him to ever broadening musical vistas. The truth is, though, that Taylor actually came of age during a period of rangy experimentation, having worked in rock and fusion outfits that, at one point, included future Deep Purple frontman Tommy Bolin.

OTIS TAYLOR: I was always psychedelic. My very first band (called the Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band) was blues rock. That’s what we all played – and that’s what Tommy played. We were doing songs for 20 minutes, back then. I did songs a lot longer when I was younger. I listen now and I think: “Wow, that’s going on for a while.” So, it’s nothing new. I was writing dark lyrics from the beginning too. I was writing it pretty simply, but I was still writing about issues.

“FEW FEET AWAY,” (DEFINITION OF A CIRCLE, 2007): A standout collaboration with his daughter Cassie, who had been part of Taylor’s recordings since 2004’s Truth with Double V, when the teen was still splitting time between the road and working at Starr’s Clothing in Boulder, Colo. Of course, Double V ended up earning album of the year honors from Down Beat – just as Circle would in ’07 – and Taylor was named best blues entertainer in the Living Blues magazine readers poll. Cassie – whose symbiotic work alongside dad was a big part of that success – remained an integral part of his recordings, playing bass and singing, for the next seven years. She released her solo debut in 2011.

OTIS TAYLOR: Everybody has a certain style that they play with. With bass players, I always say: “Don’t follow me. Play the beat – even if I change the beat!” (Laughs.) I can weave in and out, but they have to stay on the beat. Many of my albums don’t have any drums on them. But the beat was always there – that comes from the bass. Working with her, it’s a family thing. You know, your kids act like your wife or you. The way I play music is the same way Cassie plays music. I used to be a bass player, so Cassie plays bass like I would play bass.

“ONE MILLION SLAVES,” (RECAPTURING THE BANJO, 2008): One of more memorable narrative moments in Taylor’s career, as he connects the suffering of generations of enslaved people with the times that still try men’s hearts and minds today. The track’s soul-shivering lyricism, and its driving banjo-laden groove, has made it a soundtrack favorite – notably during the Michael Mann film “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp. It’s also appeared as the closing song on the FX program “Justified,” and in a commercial for the 2011 season of “Sons of Guns” on the Discovery channel. For all of the memorable imagery to be found here, though, Taylor still finds great mystery in his writing process.

OTIS TAYLOR: I try to get the stories across, but I always try to sing in second person – like a third party. Sometimes it’s the words first, sometimes the music. You’re just walking down the street, or in the shower, and something comes to you. Songs will come to me while I’m practicing, just messing around. I play to keep my calluses and these lyrics will come to me, almost subconsciously. Sometimes I will sit down and try to write a song, and I don’t do as well with that. They come to me like dreams. I’ll wake up at 4 in the morning and I have to pee, then a song comes to your head. You have to sit there and write it down. That’s how I come to them.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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