Otis Taylor: Recapturing the Banjo

Otis Taylor
Recapturing the Banjo

Time to play word association, and the word is “banjo”. Okay, first thing you’d probably think of is the theme to the old sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies. It’s a theme that damn near everyone remembers. Perhaps another musical marker is the song “Dueling Banjoes”, from the movie Deliverance.

For those who dig a bit deeper, musically, how about the Stanley Brothers and/or Flatt & Scruggs? Of course — the old clawhammer style of picking, perfect for the Appalachian/Americana/bluegrass movement. Or for those with more eclectic tastes, you have the jazz banjo stylings of Béla Fleck (with or without his Flecktones). And before jazz, Fleck started off playing bluegrass, too.

But there’s something that many people don’t know about the banjo. It’s a misnomer to believe the banjo’s start point in the musical lexicon was along the Appalachian Trail. The five-stringer actually was an import — from Africa. Yes, you read that correctly: Africa. Slaves who migrated to the United States brought the instrument over to the colonies in the 1700’s. And it’s bluesman Otis Taylor’s mission to remind everyone that this isn’t a Kentucky or Carolina or West Virginia thing. Hell, it ain’t even a white thing.

For those of you who know Taylor’s music, he usually keys on four instruments: guitar, mandolin, harmonica, and the aforementioned banjo. His eight previous albums (seven of which are still in circulation) lay testament to that. But what Taylor decided to do was to take a few of his musical friends, all known black blues musicians, and give them all a chance to shine on banjo, hence the apropos title Recapturing the Banjo.

Bet you might not have known Keb’ Mo’ plays a banjo. You’ll know it after hearing Recapturing, since he plays on three of the 14 tracks. Other names who lend their picking talents here: Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Don Vappie, and Guy Davis. Yet throughout this mix of traditionals, covers and originals, this is still an Otis Taylor album. There’s still a sparseness to Taylor’s blues that puts the fear of God into nearly everything he does.

Taylor is enamored of the “trance blues” style, where a progression is repeated over and over until it becomes a churning mass of intensity. It’s the same style that put the likes of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside on the map, except Taylor usually eschews drums as percussive propulsion, preferring bass instead (admirably played by his daughter Cassie, who also is a very underrated backup vocalist).

The opening song, “Ran So Hard the Sun Went Down”, is typical Taylor, except this is a four-pronged banjo attack with Taylor, Hart, Harris, and Vappie all picking in unison. The low-end bass of Cassie Taylor propels the song along, as Taylor sings about (and I quote from the liner notes) “A Southern black man said the wrong thing to a Ku Klux Klan member in the 1950’s. Now, he’s running for his life.” (“Spoke to the wrong person that day / Ran back home and hid away / Looked out the window and what did I see? / Tar and feather coming after me”.)

Hart penned and sang “A Prophet’s Mission”, which adds a bit of musical whimsy with Davis on mandolin. The story, about Native Americans uniting against white men for polluting their land, is far from whimsical, though. “Live Your Life” is a rearrangement from Taylor’s original version off Respect the Dead. This update features a slightly faster tempo, and a bit of jazz infusion, courtesy of Ron Miles’ cornet.

“Walk Right In”, made popular as a trippy folk song in the early ’60s by the little-known Rooftop Singers, was written by jugband master Gus Cannon, and is one of the only songs where Taylor does not participate. Harris and Vappie are on banjo, Hart plays guitar, Cassie Taylor is on bass, and Davis plays harp. The song has a front-porch feel to it — very loose and relaxed. “Bow-Legged Charlie” plays the trance style perfectly.

The most surprising song here is a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”. Hart plays both lap steel and banjo, while Taylor straps on a six-string. It’s an eclectic mix of instruments under one title, but it works well. Davis puts forth the clawhammer style preferred by most old-time bluegrass banjoists on a cover of the traditional “Little Liza Jane”.

Aside from “Ran So Hard…”, the song that would fit most comfortably in any of Taylor’s past releases is “Five Hundred Roses”. It’s stark and open and stirring, and only has a banjo, piano, lap steel, and bass going on. Another Respect the Dead reworking, “Ten Million Slaves” uses an electric guitar as the lead instrument with the banjo backing (the original had it reversed).

Otis Taylor is the only “modern day” bluesman who can make the blues sound primitive without being phony or contrived. And it really doesn’t matter what weapon he’s using to fire his musical provocations. In this case, he’s chosen a banjo as the primary cannon from his arsenal. Yes, it’s only February, but something way better than Recapturing the Banjo is going to have to come along to knock this off the pedestal as the best blues release of 2008.

RATING 8 / 10