Otis Taylor’s blues aren’t conventional blues. They’re aren’t good-time blues. Banjo in hand, he imbues them musically with an out-of-time, off-kilter sound — and then runs right at life’s bitter truths. Whether that means delving into the awful history of slavery, or the way that legacy plays out in this age of incarceration, Taylor hasn’t shied away.
The results, though never destined to be a big hit on the shuck-and-jive festival circuit, can be counted among the most bracing, brutally honest recordings — blues or otherwise — put out over the last two decades.
This time, after joining forces with guitarist Mato Nanji, Taylor immersed himself in the Native American people’s devastating narrative. Amid the familiar wreckage of broken promises, brutal atrocities and humiliating exile from their own land, however, Taylor finds specifics that resonate. In so doing, he makes their stories viscerally real.
There is Chief Joseph, trying desperately in the title track to complete a bruising 1,300-mile journey over the Canadian border, only to be captured within 40 miles of that sanctuary. There’s the Native American woman, decades later, forced to drive a wealthy man in “Gangster and Iztatoz Chauffeur,” though she never lets go of her long-held values. This sense of crushing, irretrievable separation plays out in the story (called “Blue Rain in Africa”) of a man who’s only ever seen a white buffalo on television, and another (in “Never Been to the Reservation”) who lives with a breezy obliviousness near one of the interment camps.
Meanwhile, the trance-infused “Sand Creek Massacre Mourning” retells the stunning murder of some 200 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho at the hands of federal troops in 1864 — yet does so not as a historical screed, but with the same force of wide-eyed terror that Taylor has previously framed the plight of American slaves. He deals with the scourge of alcohol on the native people not as a bromide, but within the heart-rending story of a lover who finally puts away the bottle, only to find it’s too late to save his relationship.
Even in the face of so much hardship, however, there are small, tender mercies — the widow who just might find love at the dance on “Jae Jae Waltz,” the randy scamp who makes an untoward suggestion in “Girl Friend’s House,” the loving husband who treasures nothing more than his spouse’s company in “Sit Across Your Table.”
That resiliency is part of the human condition, too, and as with every other detail in this finely woven, complex and striking triumph, Taylor gets it just right.