By Ashley Zimmerman
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It´s a sad state of affairs when a cultural art form like American blues music is hard to find, both on the radio and in live performance, yet an oddball subgenre like post-emo-shoegaze is gaining all the attention. That might sound like a sign of the times, but the blues have for decades been on a steady decline in the popularity department, especially among African-American youth, and things don´t appear to be getting better. Arguably, the blues never warranted much respect on a grand scale. When you are lucky enough to catch some of the few blues legends who still tour, the audiences tend to be predominantly white, if not completely. That´s a difficult truth for some bluesmen to accept, but as always, longtime singer and guitarist Otis Taylor has a different outlook on the state of the blues.
¨Aw, man, African-Americans are always playing second fiddle in our own genres,¨ Taylor says via telephone from Colorado. ¨Blacks started doing minstrels; then whites took that over. It´s the same with ragtime, then blues, then rock, then hip-hop. It´s always been that way. You never know, one day, the blacks could rediscover it. I always tell people, what if the greatest blues singer hasn´t been born yet? Because there´s as much depression and poverty as ever, so there´s certainly no shortage of material.¨
In that regard, Taylor, who for the bulk of his career has stood on the fringes of the blues, is right. He´s not a typical blues singer, and his instruments of choice are the banjo and mandolin -- more frequently associated with the twang of country and western. In a lot of ways, that´s fitting, because although he was born in Chicago, the proverbial blues mecca, he was raised in Denver, Colorado. Aside from geography, Taylor is a blues enigma -- more of a free-spirited maverick than a conformist both on and off the stage.
His playing style is largely based on acoustic strumming, and his recorded material is famous for its dark, brooding wails and timeless hollers, sounding as if they were crafted in the post-bellum South or rural Appalachia. It´s an odd yet stirring mountainous blend that somewhat explains why Taylor is considered an outsider. But when he´s asked if he thinks his time in Chicago at least helped spark his interest in recording the blues, he shoots it down immediately. ¨I think you inherit the blues by being black,¨ Taylor deadpans. ¨It´s as simple as that. The first instrument I ever purchased was the banjo, when I was a kid. At the time, I didn´t know the banjo came from Africa. It must have been some odd tribal thing in my head, but this is our music. I can´t explain it any further than that.¨
Taylor´s music does have a distinct West African feel to it, and anyone with a trained ear can hear traces of Fulani call and response throughout his recordings. His songwriting is more akin to that of a modern-day griot the storyteller who passes down the experiences of the ancestors to anyone willing to listen. Some of his songs, like ¨Feel Like Lightning¨ from his 2005 release Below the Fold, are sung from the perspective of freed slaves, and others ring with an undeterminable era that´s everywhere except the present. He acknowledges the presence of African rhythms in his music but stops short of saying it´s intentional.
¨I´m not an expert on African music,¨ Taylor offers. ¨I probably should be, but I can´t keep all those facts in my head.¨
Taylor´s upbringing in Colorado was laced with intricacies directly related to the black experience. His parents were huge jazz lovers, which is the main genre he was raised on, and as an eclectic youth, Taylor taught himself how to play harmonica and banjo while riding his unicycle to school every day. But he was also exposed to Native American families and Mexican rancheros, and those cultural relations are present in the Taylor whom the world has come to know. Couple that with the fact that his left-leaning mother had a soft spot for the music of Etta James and Pat Boone and it´s no wonder Taylor marches to a different beat.
He formed his first band in 1964, quickly made a name for himself throughout Colorado, and even relocated to London to play professionally in 1969. He signed a recording contract with British-based music label Blue Horizons that didn´t produce anything except a heart full of frustrations. Despite his big voice and enormous talent, he gave up on music completely, he says. In 1977, he simply quit the band he was playing with to focus on a career as an antiques dealer.
It seemed like a strange decision to fans and fellow musicians who knew how skilled Taylor was at his unique version of ¨trance blues,¨ but to Taylor, it was something he had to do in order to grow.
¨I was in a band, I wasn´t happy, and I quit,¨ Taylor says almost defensively. ¨I didn´t play to make money, so it was easy to walk away. A lot of people quit music. It stays inside of you, but you can stop performing it pretty easily.¨
In fairness, before Taylor made a name for himself as a musician, he was a dealer in Native American artifacts, and he still collects antiques to this day. But luckily for the blues world, after a 19-year hiatus from the blues, Taylor started recording again in 1995. He quickly reestablished himself, recording unapologetically controversial material on albums like Blue Eyed Monster and When Negroes Walked the Earth. His music was ultrablack and not in the least bit fashioned for the white audiences who appreciated its honesty -- but that contrast is part of what makes Taylor who he is.
He´s been recording music with fervor and has put out eight albums since 1995, including his most recent, Definition of a Circle, on the famous Telarc label. The album is a bit more electric than most of his material but still dark and full of heavy topics. One thing that´s not heavy on Definition of a Circle is the album name itself. ¨I just liked it,¨ he says. ¨I could give you some jive answers about how the black man´s still in slavery...¨ and then he trails off and starts to laugh.
His wife, who´s sitting next to him in the car during the interview, finishes the sentence for him. ¨My wife says I´m not that deep,¨ he says as they share a chuckle. It´s the laugh of a man and a woman who are enjoying life, and Taylor seems to be worlds apart from the unhappy singer who quit music to deal in antiques.
Part of the reason he´s excited to perform in Florida this weekend, he says, is to see what goods he can find for his personal collection.
¨Florida has always been one of my favorite places to shop,¨ Taylor says with a laugh. ¨I´m always searching for old instruments, mandolins, banjos, guitars, paintings... I´m looking forward to loading up.¨