I know many people – one of my best friends, for instance – have a stereotype of what the blues sounds like whenever you mention the idiom. Otis Taylor shatters your illusions of what the blues is and what it can be. Clovis People, Vol. 3 confounds and stretches the concept of modern blues by taking on subjects other songwriters wouldn’t touch and using instruments and arrangements others wouldn’t think of.
Many modern blues artists are influenced by the same handful of artists – Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B., Albert, and Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Otis Rush Buddy Guy – and their music bears all those obvious hallmarks. Those are great names and it makes sense they’d inspire future generations to take to the guitar, but the risk of getting a stale scene runs high if everyone draws from the same sources and to an extent that problem is reality. That’s why it’s important to have artists like Taylor who aren’t interested in making records that fit into those conventions.
Not only does Taylor shy away from the guitar-drenched 12-bar blues sound, he also writes about things beyond love gone wrong and chasing tail. I love plenty of blues albums that are all of those things but I’m drawn to artists and albums within the idiom that, first, have other ideas and, second, execute them well. Taylor does both on Clovis People, Vol. 3.
He is a shaman on “Hands On Your Stomach,” creating music with very deep, traditional roots that when blended don’t result in a composition that sounds like something you would obviously identify as blues. Ghostly imagery and vintage fingerpicking aren’t new, but they sound fresh here combined with Tejano brass accents. There are no instrumental solos or bridges or tortured wails. “Hands On Your Stomach” is a blues song that isn’t.
Not long ago, The Wall Street Journal wrote something of a eulogy for the blues, decrying its conservatism and reliance on tradition. It was another of those silly “all blues sounds the same” articles that sadly said more about the writer than the music. “Rain So Hard” is undeniably and identifiably the blues but how many blues staples do you know that deploy theremin, cornet, and cello? This is primitive, rustic music with an off-kilter spirit about it. It’s traditional, but Taylor doesn’t play it safe. That’s what makes Taylor so compelling and so crucial to the tapestry of the blues.
He reminds me of one of my favorite songwriters, Peter Karp, in that they’re both songwriters first and blues musicians second. Taylor is an amazing storyteller and “Past Times” tells the story of a man who knows he only has a few hours left to live. The man considers whether he has strength to fight to stay longer or if he’s ready for the suffering to end, pondering the hours he has left and the years behind him. Musically, Chuck Campbell’s pedal steel quietly but urgently weeps and wails like a ghost. The blues are filled with tales of sorrow but rarely are they lyrically or musically presented like this.
“Ice In The Desert” is a more approachable song lyrically and musically but it fits comfortably in the universe Taylor creates on this record. Gary Moore fills in on lead guitar and plays some beautiful lead that cries powerfully over a weeping violin, cornet, and acoustic guitar. We don’t know why the lovers in this song have one day left together but the heartbreak of the pending separation and the magnetic power of love on the heart and soul are beautifully expressed.
Taylor hasn’t created new blues but has re-cast deep blues in a way not often heard on the modern scene. Clovis People, Vol. 3 isn’t going to appeal to all blues listeners but those willing to cast aside their notion of what a blues record is and should be will find something special on this one. Even if you don’t love Clovis People, all blues fans should be thankful there are artists willing to tread the road less traveled.