Before I picked up on his amazingly haunting new CD, Truth Is Not Fiction, my only contact with blues artist Otis Taylor was a brief chorus or two I managed to catch on various WEMU blues shows. His voice reminded me in a way of John Lee Hooker, but it didn't hit me hard enough to go out and track down any of his recordings. I try to pay attention, but with the horrid state of commercial radio in this city (thank you, Clear Channel) and the massive number of blues records fighting for airplay on public radio, artists like Taylor have their work cut out for them catching the public's ear — mine included.
Fortunately, Taylor's upcoming Ark gig on Wednesday, August 13, prompted a second look. The new CD is actually Taylor's fifth. Collecting eleven originals and a cover of Big Joe Williams's "Baby Please Don't Go," it's a rainbow of American roots music, blending a Guthriesque political awareness with the voodoo darkness of Fat Possum Records acts like R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, with a bit of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks Zen tossed in for good measure. Which is pretty amazing for a guy who makes his home in Colorado, where for the last two decades he has been running an upscale antiques business.
Taylor's blues world is a snapshot of good and evil, from "Rosa, Rosa," an upbeat lap steel guitar anthem to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, to "House of the Crosses," the saga of a man conceived during a rape who ends up guarding his biological father in a Russian prison. One minute he's celebrating life; the next he's watching, in the best blues tradition, as horrible things unfold.
Whether he's writing about a death in a slave family (the Stephen Foster-like banjo tune "Shakie's Gone"), being in love with someone who doesn't love you (the blues weeper "Comb Your Brown Hair"), or the last hours of a dying man (the mandolin-flavored "Past Times"), Taylor updates blues traditions while not falling into the we're-in-the-blues-business-now groove, a trap that rounds the edges off far too many "new" blues acts.
Taylor's mastery of the banjo, mandolin, and Hooker-style riff guitar comes in handy, too, as do his daughter Cassie's backup vocals and the occasional touch of jazz-flavored cello. Vocally Taylor does owe a debt to John Lee, but there's enough of the lazy country blues there, Á la Taj Mahal, along with a Van Morrison R&B/jazz feel, to ensure that he doesn't fall into the quicksand of cliché.