“They think I’m a little too out there,” says the 71-year-old longtime Boulder resident. “Some people think I don’t have a genre. I call myself a trance blues guy. If I feel like a blues guy, then I am. I can be whatever I want to be.”
Trance blues, a genre that pretty much begins and ends with Taylor, eschews the typical chord changes and twelve-bar structure of traditional blues for highly rhythmic, hypnotic music.
“You could be playing a song for three minutes or you could be playing it for fifteen minutes,” he says. “I don’t use a lot of chords, so it has to be interesting. The first time you play people a song and it has chord changes, after about three minutes they get bored with it. But with trance, you bore them at the get-go, and they lose sense of time.”
Unlike most blues musicians, Taylor employs the banjo, which he took up briefly when he was a teenager, then abandoned because of its association with racism in the South. But after hearing a National Public Radio segment about the instrument's African roots, he was inspired to start playing again as an adult, and in 2008 put out his Recapturing the Banjo album.
Taylor left music in the late ’70s to pursue a career as an antiques broker, and made his mark in that industry selling American Indian, art deco and art nouveau objects. He returned in the ’90s, and his musical output since then — which comprises fifteen albums — has earned him numerous awards. He's had two banjo models named after him by Ome Banjos, and there is a guitar made by the Santa Cruz Guitar Company that bears his name.
Taylor is being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame Presented by Comfort Dental in December along with Boulder blues rockers Zephyr and, individually, the band's lead singer, Candy Givens, and guitarist Tommy Bolin, a heavy hitter in the guitar world whose life was cut short by a heroin overdose in 1976.
Taylor describes the induction as "a pretty prestigious thing. It’s a big honor. It’s nice to be there with Tommy Bolin. He’s a legend. He had a big performing influence on me.”
Chris Daniels, director of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, says that Taylor, whom Daniels has known since the 1970s, should already be in the state’s music hall of fame.
"He is part of a class that is long overdue — everyone in that class,” Daniels says. “But we are only eight years old. We’ve been moving as fast as we can.”
Daniels says Taylor has brought a unique perspective to the blues through his voice, playing style and heavy subject matter.
"‘Strange Fruit’ [by Billie Holiday] is about lynching,” Daniels notes. “Otis has written about that. Not a lot of people would write songs about lynching. Bad women, bad men, bad booze, which are all terrible things — don’t get me wrong. But Otis goes another layer deeper.”
Taylor admits that he likes to write about dark subject matter, and that can include anything from race and slavery to Japanese-American internment camps and fatal crashes at car races in Mexico. He also enjoys Appalachian and Irish folk music, both of which often include lyrics about revenge and killing. So does hip-hop. “Dark shit,” as he puts it.
“What’s more interesting than those kind of things?” Taylor asks. “The world is not hurting for another love song. There are billions of love songs.”
Denver folk-music legend Harry Tuft has known Taylor since he was fourteen years old and wandered into the Denver Folklore Center, an acoustic-music shop and hangout that Tuft owned for many years. He's watched Taylor develop as a musician for more than fifty years and recalls that he started off learning bluegrass and old-time music before moving on to rock and roll and later to the blues.
“Along the way, he began to develop this style,” Tuft adds. “It’s more than a style; it’s a whole musical point of view, really. The closest analogy I can think of is John Lee Hooker, whose style was very basic, and he used his thumb a lot. He used a strong rhythm.”
Tuft points out that an entire section of rock and roll that started with the Grateful Dead in the 1960s is trance-like and borrows from Eastern musical traditions. Taylor is doing something along those lines, but making it his own and drawing in African musical influences.
“Now you have jam bands that do fifteen-minute extensions of one song,” he says. “Otis is doing it, but he’s doing it for the blues. In effect, he’s really the only one doing it that way."
Paul Epstein, owner of Denver’s Twist & Shout Records and a Colorado Music Hall of Fame boardmember, remembers seeing Taylor perform with Zephyr in the 1970s and standing on top of a piano by the end of the set, “all 6'4" or 6'3" of him.” He calls Taylor a modern blues master who has explored many sides of the genre. Like Tuft, Epstein evokes Chicago blues legend John Lee Hooker, but also Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins when discussing Taylor’s musical style.
“And then there's this trance thing that is completely his thing, that pretty much nobody else does,” Epstein says. “But he also has a bunch of albums that are kind of leading up to the trance thing, that to me are always like he tapped into his own secret language of the blues.”
Mato Nanji, guitarist and founding member of national blues-rock band Indigenous, says he met Taylor in the early ’90s, and the two have been playing together ever since. Nanji will be performing with his longtime friend at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in December.
Nanji says he enjoys Taylor’s music because it sounds real to him.
“You hear everything on the radio...not that I’m putting anyone down, but a lot of it sounds generic after a while,” Nanji says. “But for someone like [Taylor] or B.B. King or Albert King, the blues I grew up listening to, it’s true, and it’s real music that hits you in the heart.”
Taylor’s newest musical project, Otis Taylor’s Psychedelic Banjo Posse, debuted last year at a summer festival in Milwaukee and the Telluride Blues Festival. He says the project is recording in strange places (he won’t say where) and an album is in the works, though he’s not sure when it will come out.
“I’m getting older and slower, so, you know, stuff doesn’t go as quick,” he says. “I’m not going to kill myself over anything anymore like I used to. My obsessions have slowed down a bit.”
Taylor will perform at the Colorado Music Hall of Fame Presented by Comfort Dental's Going Back to Colorado: Class of 2019 induction ceremony at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 3, at the Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop Street. Tickets start at $39.95 and are available at the Mission Ballroom website.
Hear Otis Taylor and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.