Rumbling out of the heart of rural Kentucky like some raw-boned hillbilly with a bad attitude and a head full of sour mash whiskey, Glasgow’s Otis raise an awfully big ruckus for a group of four small-town boys. Founded about five years ago, the band made their boisterous introductions in 2014 with “Tough Times: A Tribute to John Brim,” a 10-song homage to a Kentucky bluesman who made his name in mid-century Chicago.
Guitarist Steve Jewell tells that he and his fellow band members had known each other most of their lives when they started Otis, and bonded over their shared affinity for Chess Records and classic blues rock, Cream and Led Zeppelin and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The recording of “Tough Times,” however, was key to creating what would become Otis’ trademark heavy-Southern sound. “Some really great people helped us on that record, and it inspired us,” Jewell says. “It made us dig, and study, looking at different tunings, different picking styles, different ways of singing. And it had a lot of effect on our songwriting.
“As musicians, we’re all very curious about the roots of the music we listen to. If we hear Joe Perry say he listens to Johnny Winter, then we go check out Johnny Winter. And then Johnny Winter says he likes Slim Harpo, and we’ll keep going back and back. We’re always looking at where this record was made, or who the musicians were on that session, or who the producer was for that release. We try to be like sponges, soaking up as much information about the music as we can.”
The result is that Otis make music that’s at once familiar, yet hard to pin down — pummeling and inexorable, possessed of the primal essence of bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, the whole of it leavened by southern rock and the sounds of rural Kentucky, bluegrass and honky-tonk and old-time mountain music.
“Growing up around here, we heard a steady diet of bluegrass and folk and country music,” Jewell says. “What we try to do is distill whatever it is that makes great music what it is — the honesty, the storytelling, the raw emotion. You can listen to Howlin’ Wolf and Bill Monroe, and you can hear some kind of common thread there, the honesty of it. That’s what we’re looking for.
“It’s always interesting for us to read reviews from people who listen to the band. Some people hear the Southern elements, others say we sound like Clutch, and other say Johnny Winters or the Allman Brothers or Skynyrd. But whatever it is they hear, it always goes back to something in our roots in the blues or Southern rock ‘n’ roll.”
The band is touring now on the strength of their freshly-pressed sophomore release “Eyes of the Sun,” an 11-song album that showcases all the lessons learned over the course of the “Tough Times” sessions, plus five years of touring and performing as a unit. Having already garnered a shout-out from no less a blues-rock luminary than ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons, “Eyes” hits home with all the barreling locomotive impact of its predecessor, only with deeper grooves, and sharper, more delineated hooks.
But Jewell warns that the trajectory of the band’s evolution is still on a sharp upward climb. “We’re planning to be around for a little while,” he says. “Hopefully, we can spread some kind of positivity. And maybe somewhere along the way we’d like to write something that people will remember for a long time to come.”
Otis will play Preservation Pub Saturday, Oct. 7 at 10 p.m.