Taylor writes heavy songs, has lighthearted style
Award-winning folk-blues singer Otis Taylor writes dark songs. Add to that his performance style, which has been described by Playboy magazine as “scary, stinging music cut on life’s edges.” Ask Taylor if he writes happy songs and he’ll answer, “EHHHHH. Wrong question.”
“I could try but the songs would be more silly than happy,” said Taylor Sunday from his Boulder, Colo., home. “You do what you do the best. I was playing an upbeat song yesterday and suddenly these new words came to me. The song needed to be about someone missing somebody and that person finally copping to it, saying ‘maybe they missed me, I better get back home.’ It was upbeat but still melancholy.”
No matter how hard he tries to explain otherwise, Taylor might as well accept the fact he’s best known for writing somber songs.
“Even a happy song, ‘Just Live Your Life,’ got interpreted as an unhappy song. Someone told me it was about clubbing the baby seals,” he laughingly reminisced about the last song on his latest CD, “Respect the Dead.” “What can I say, I thought it was a positive song.”
Since there’s no guarantees to how long one’s life will be, Taylor noted “Just Live Your Life” is about individuals learning to do what matters most to them.
Taylor’s songs are usually issue-oriented, ranging from murder, prison, racism, lynchings, death, poverty, adultery to ill-fated situations.
On “Respect the Dead,” Taylor writes about real characters, such as a man in a fallout shelter in “Ten Million Slaves,” a small town sheriff who loses his job because he can’t adjust to today’s world in “Changing Rules,” and a World War II soldier who was afraid to jump between two ships on the open seas in “Jump Jelly Belly.”
For all his heavy subjects, though, Taylor is really very funny and personable; he just happens to sing about serious subjects.
“I want the audience to have a good time; I think I’m entertaining,” reflected Taylor, who performs Saturday in Grass Valley. “It’s not as dark as you think it is. People go to ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ ‘Straw Dogs’ and lots of other sad movies. When I play a sad concert, they say ‘what’s this?’ There’s only a few comedies a year, but no one complains about that.”
Not that his fans are really complaining about his songs.
Taylor will perform at the prestigious South by Southwest extravaganza in Austin, Texas this March. And he’s a W.C. Handy Award recipient.
Ask him how it felt to win the “Best New Artist” W.C. Handy Award (the blues equivalent to a Grammy) last year for his CD, “White African,” and Taylor responds with a big chuckle, “It’s good for business. I want my career to be lucrative; I just want to have a Porsche. I would say Mercedes-Benz, but Janis Joplin said that. So I have to say Porsche or Lamborghinis.”
Taylor was more jazzed that he had the most nominations (four) last year: “It was nice getting the award but getting the nominations was really the buzz.”
This year, he has two nominations for “Respect the Dead”: in the “Acoustic Blues Artist” and “Contemporary Blues Album” categories.
As for being named “Best New Artist,” Taylor isn’t exactly a musical newcomer. He has played coffee houses, beginning as a 15-year-old in the 1960s and then playing with T&O Short Line, 4-Nikators, Zephyr and singer-guitarist Tommy Bolin (James Gang, Deep Purple) before taking a 19-year music hiatus.
During his hiatus, Taylor was an antiques seller, and coach and co-sponsor of a top-ranked professional bicycling team.
Even though antiques and racing kept Taylor on the go, he couldn’t stay away forever from the music business.
A co-sponsor of the cycling team opened a coffeehouse in Boulder seven years ago and asked Taylor to help him choose a P.A. system. To support his friend, Taylor played a few gigs to attract customers to the new business.
Shortly after, Taylor was encouraged by friends who attended these gigs to release an indie album, “Blue Eyed Monster,” in 1995 followed by “When Negroes Walked the Earth.” “White African” was released one year later, earning Taylor his W.C. Handy Award.
“I wasn’t purposely doing music. But then I had to see it through,” said Taylor, who has finished five CDs in the past seven years.
“I’m the kind of guy who gets sucked into things,” Taylor continued. “I’m still into antiques when I have time – I went shopping yesterday. People are amazed I had a bike team for four years; I didn’t ride. You could say I’m kind of eccentric.”
As for releasing one CD after
another, Taylor says he’s not making
up for lost time; he’s just prolific and has written since he was 8.
“I’ve always had a dark side, but now I’m more social in the last seven years,” said Taylor, 54. “I’m older, a little wiser. Wouldn’t everyone like to be old in a young body?”
KNOW & GO
WHAT: Otis Taylor in concert
WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m.
WHERE: Center for the Arts, 314 W. Main St., Grass Valley.
ADMISSION: $12. Tickets at Herb Shop Records, BriarPatch, Book Seller and at the door.
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Lying serenely beneath a mighty oak on a bucolic farm a few miles north of Nevada City are three Jewish headstones.