A self-described musical “reporter” takes a hard look at a broken world  

Otis Taylor watches through the window as the snow falls outside. Most would find it serene—a dusting on the mountains surrounding Boulder, Colo., the place he calls home. But not Taylor. “It’s dark and overcast,” he says with a shrug. The bluesman, 63, readily describes himself as a pessimist, one who warns that he has little patience for answering “stupid questions.” “I’m old and I’m black and I don’t give a crap,” he says.

Taylor’s music is just as blunt. On a dozen albums released over the last 16 years, he’s conveyed a sometimes brutal account of the black American experience on works with titles like Blue-Eyed Monster, When Negroes Walked the Earth and White African. The Chicago-born multi-instrumentalist’s recording career began in earnest in the mid-1990s, following nearly two decades during which he simply didn’t bother with the music industry. “That was no hiatus,” he says. “I quit! I was fed up with the music business. There’s never been a musician who wasn’t fed up with the music business.”

His latest, Contraband—named for runaway Civil War slaves who were still considered commodities even after reaching Union lines—maintains that unabashedly direct narrative. While he’s garnered several prestigious W.C. Handy nominations and a composition fellowship from the Sundance Institute, Taylor is wary of praise. “I don’t know about the blues,” he maintains. “But I do know about being black. And if you’re a black singer, then you must be making black music. It’s typecasting, but I understand it. However, I still like to put my own twist on things.” His unique spin on traditional sounds has spawned a subgenre that he calls “trance blues.” Characterized by atonal rhythms, gritty emotional grooves and melodies devoid of chord changes, it inspired an entire Trance Blues Jam Festival last November in Boulder, the first of what he hopes is an annual event.

Despite his downcast disposition, Taylor claims the edgier songs from the new album—“The Devil’s Gonna Lie,” “Romans Had Their Way,” “I Can See You’re Lying”—offer commentaries, not critiques. “I’m a reporter, a storyteller,” he says. “I’m not about being self-righteous. I provide facts and leave it to listeners to come to their own conclusions. Some people write about broken hearts. I write about broken bodies.”

–Lee Zimmerman

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