Soul Sista

Detroit folkie on praise from 'Idol' runner-up Crystal Bowersox, gay rights and living out of her car

By Thomas Matich

The real winner of "American Idol" this year wasn't Lee DeWyze or even runner-up Crystal Bowersox, but Detroit's nomadic folk-soul songstress Sista Otis. Otis, who has a syrupy down-home Janis Joplin warble that has given inspiration to Bowersox, gained recent national attention when "Mama Sox" mentioned her on the most popular medium for music in mainstream America.

"I was knocked out that this li'l gal from Ohio was the one to be mentioning me on national TV," Otis says. "Any publicity is good publicity, but the fact that it's coming from such a talented singer-songwriter is definitely a badge of honor, which I wear with pride."

Speaking of pride, Otis will be performing at this year's Michigan Pride festival, where she will bring her unique blend of Southern-fried folk and Detroit rock to freshly tuned ears. For Otis, who has lived out of a Geo Metro, traveling across the country to play one-off gigs in bars and even found herself in soup kitchens, this boost in fame is something she hopes to take advantage of. But don't expect her to stop living the life of a travelin', ramblin' woman of rock.

"I won't settle down somewhere until they bury me. If I'm not out there playing or recording, I'm just straight-up miserable. I'm a workin' musician and I'm a Detroit girl," Otis says. "You gotta be constantly challenging yourself and pushing yourself, otherwise you end up stagnant with nothing new coming out and life gets way too boring."

Perhaps "American Idol" came at the right time to spice life up for Otis. She's open to collaborating with Bowersox and is in the process of finishing a new album to be released on New Orleans record label 9th Ward. Otis describes her new material as Detroit rock 'n' roll thrown into a New Orleans swamp.

Otis' connection to Louisiana runs deep as she was down in the trenches during Hurricane Katrina, busking to raise the spirits of those affected by the disaster. With yet another disaster hitting the coastal region by way of the BP oil spill, Otis says it's time for people to realize we can change the way the government handles crises instead of looking to blame the establishment. And when it comes to LGBT causes, such as repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and gay marriage bans, Otis keeps the can-do attitude flowing, despite the battles faced ahead.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. It's written in black and white; it doesn't say, 'Unless you're gay!'" Otis says. "Truth and justice will prevail. It's just a matter of time. Hold tight. Keep your eyes on the prize. We shall overcome!"

With "American Idol" giving increased attention to singer-songwriters such as DeWyze and Bowersox, it seems the idea that anyone with an acoustic guitar can break out and be a star. But for Otis, whose name was coined from the R&B legend Otis Redding, she finds that every genre has its time in the sun. But these brushes with fame should only fuel the fire to hustle - especially for this freewheelin' songstress.

"You have to hit the road and get some dirt under your nails; sleep in your car," Otis says. "A songwriter worth their weight in words is someone who has experienced life and gives themselves completely to their art. It's constantly a learning lesson. You have to feel good about making mistakes because that is what will make you a better artist."

Spoken like a true winner.

Sista Otis

Michigan Pride, Main Stage

3:30 p.m. June 12

http://www.michiganpride.org

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