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Otis Taylor's reservation blues

The Boulder musician takes an unblinking look at a national tragedy



Longtime genre-bending blues musician Otis Taylor is keenly aware of the universality of suffering. While a lot of his music has focused on the more difficult aspects of the African-American experience throughout history, the content from his latest release, My World Is Gone, has a decidedly more Native American bent to it. That's only fitting, given that the direction for the album was largely sparked by a comment that renowned Native American singer and guitarist, Mato Nanji, made to Taylor not long ago.

"I was backstage at a Jimi Hendrix tribute concert," Taylor says. "Everybody's talking and we're all just complaining about things, and all of a sudden Mato Nanji said, 'My world is gone.' And we all sort of looked at each other and said, 'Whoa, that's so heavy.' I said, 'I'm going to write a song about that,' and then a couple weeks later we started work and put it on the album and I had him play on it."

The title track is a mid-tempo shuffler that sets the tone for the album, as the Boulder-based Taylor imbues his raspy vocals with disheartened resignation over the erosion of the Native American world that white society continues to subjugate. "Sand Creek Massacre Mourning" is a chilling piece of Americana, its march-like drumbeat and horn section bringing additional eeriness to a song about Colorado militia massacring and injuring scores of Cheyenne and Arapaho back in 1864.

But Taylor makes his strongest statement about the harsh realities of life on "Never Been to the Reservation," when he reminds listeners that the plight of the Native Americans is ongoing, their desolation never-ending.

"If you ever go to the reservation, it's pretty dismal," Taylor says. "Their suffering is still going on, but the rest of the world moves on. They're forgotten people. The whole world keeps forgetting about them. People watch cowboys and Indians movies now. It's just the way things are. We don't talk a lot about slavery either until they release a movie like Lincoln. But this is way worse because it's still happening."

Throughout his career — which includes a hiatus from 1977 to 1995 in order to pursue cycling and become an antiques dealer of, interestingly enough, Native American art — Taylor has strived to make sure that people don't forget about the black marks on America's past. His songs have referenced lynchings, murders and broken relationships, all subjects that are natural fits for the bluesy world he inhabits. That being said however, more upbeat tracks like "Sit Across Your Table" and "Jae Jae Waltz" (whose arrangement is reminiscent of "Oh My Darling, Clementine") suggest that there's always a place for respite.

"The album is a journey, and I'm not afraid to be dark," Taylor admits. "But you don't want it to be super dark all the time."

Along the way, Taylor has been nominated for more than a dozen Blues Music Awards and is a five-time winner of DownBeat's Best Blues Album award. Not bad for a disillusioned musician who got back into the business by accident.

"It was kind of a fluke," Taylor says with a chuckle. "I was the manager of a bicycle chain, and our main sponsor went bankrupt. So sometime later he opened up a coffee house and I went to play at his coffee house one time. It went so well that I just never stopped."

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