James Otto Goes for the Soul

By Phyllis Stark

© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

For most artists, finding a unique niche and an identifiable sound are the first hurdles toward establishing a career. For James Otto, it’s “mission accomplished” on both fronts.

Otto, who records for Warner Bros. Records, has carved a place for himself as a leading purveyor of “Country Soul.” He mined that sound with the No. 1 single “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” from his Sunset Man album, which debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s all-genre Top 200 album chart and was the most played Country single of 2008, according to Country Aircheck.

On his new album, Shake What God Gave Ya (set for release Sept. 14), Otto expands on that brand, not only as a singer but also as co-writer of a number of tracks including “Lover Man,” flavored by some Memphis-style funk guitar (written with Al Anderson and Jim Femino), as well as the slow gospel-flavored waltz “Let’s Just Let Go” (Femino, Arlos Smith), the dramatic testimony of “Solders & Jesus” (Otto, Chris Wallin) and the album’s first single, the easy-flowing yet sultry “Groovy Little Summer Song” (Anderson, Carson Chamberlain).

“I’m going to be unapologetic about it, certainly,” said Otto. “We’re definitely doing sexy love songs and sultry songs about one of many people’s favorite subjects. The girls that love ‘Just Got Started Lovin’ You’ are going to have a lot on this album to love because there’s a lot of groovy, feel-good, soulful songs on here.”

While that’s not all that Shake What God Gave Ya has to offer, that Country/soul connection runs deep here, not just in the sound but also in the history of some of this music. Otto actually used a guitar that once belonged to Otis Redding to write “Your Good Thing’s Gone Bad” years ago in Muscle Shoals, Ala. He was with co-writers James LeBlanc, Gary Nichols and Jon Nicholson at FAME Studios, in the office of studio co-founder and producer Rick Hall, when Otto spotted a guitar on the wall and a photo of Redding holding that same instrument. The legendary soul singer had played it on a demo of “You Left the Water Running,” which Hall had co-written with Oscar Franck and Dan Penn.

“Instruments have a soul and carry it with them,” Otto reflected. “Every guitar has a story to tell. I started playing that guitar part for ‘Your Good Thing’s Gone Bad’ while thinking about that kind of stuff because I was trying to capture that kind of mojo anyway.”

This song holds an honored place on Otto’s new album for another reason: When playing it live, he and his band would morph in the middle into Ronnie Milsap’s “Stranger in My House,” which has a similar feel. That mash-up gave Otto the idea for Milsap to guest on “Your Good Thing’s Gone Bad,” which appears on the album without any segues to other tunes.

According to Otto, that track “is one of the things I’m most proud of on the record. To get to work with one of my heroes and hear that voice come out of that man is just incredible. It was an opportunity I’ll always remember the rest of my life. I started listening again to some of the soulful influence of those Ronnie Milsap records and some of the sexier stuff by Conway Twitty.”

Otto describes his genre-jumping sound to “a blending of all the things I loved as a kid and that I’ve loved through my life into one kind of music. I draw from multiple places — rock ‘n’ roll and classic soul — to try to make a sound that is appealing to me and also appealing to my audience. If I could be a Country Music Al Green, that would be exactly where I want to be. I love singing those kinds of songs. I love playing them and writing them.”

That interplay of influences also shapes Otto’s songwriting. “All the people I loved always had more than one element to the music they were making, like the guy who actually made me want to play Country Music in the first place — Hank Williams Jr.,” he said. “He always talked about his daddy moaning the blues, but Hank Jr. specifically went further on to bring in R&B sounds and rock ‘n’ roll sounds and to incorporate real blues and boogie-woogie into Country Music. Those things influenced me very much.

“I look back on Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, a classic Ray Charles album, as a real primer for what I’m trying to do,” Otto elaborated. “And that’s to take the feel of some of those classic R&B songs and sing about things we all understand Country Music is — things from the heart, all the great Country themes of love and loss and heartache. If you can have pop Country and rock Country and all those things, you can certainly have Country Soul.”

Country radio has taken note of Otto’s distinct voice and presentation. Yet mixed with the support he has received from the on-air community, Otto is sometimes perceived as yet to reach his full creative stride. For instance, John Sebastian, PD, WWQM/Madison, Wis., described Otto’s songwriting as “clever and contagious and sometimes amazingly insightful. He’s unique because he really doesn’t sound like anyone else in Country Music.”

At the same time, Sebastian characterized Otto as “underdeveloped. He’s not broken through like he deserves to do. He’s one of the most talented of all our Country artists yet still waits for his big breakthrough.”

Peter Strickland, Senior VP of Brand Management and Sales, Warner Music Nashville, aims to change that perception by working toward more “consistency at radio” for Otto. “If you don’t have that, it’s hard to put him on that pedestal of superstardom.”

To put that process into gear, initial marketing for the new album included some unusual targeting of Country dance clubs for “Groovy Little Summer Song.” The idea, according to Strickland, was to “build a familiarity at the clubs, so hopefully it will connect the dots at radio.”

The record label also shifted its messaging around Otto from the previous “biggest voice in Country Music” to emphasizing the Country Soul concept. “We’re leaning that way because the music is trending that way,” Strickland noted. “That will be our strength in branding him.”

Otto credits co-producing Sunset Man with John Rich for preparing him to share production responsibilities on his new album, this time with Paul Worley. And he benefitted as a songwriter too, from the recognition he’d earned for co-writing the Jamey Johnson hit “In Color,” with Johnson and Lee Thomas Miller, cited as Song of the Year at the CMA Awards in 2009.

“Working with Paul Worley this time around was a huge thing,” Otto said. “He’s been involved in my career at a lot of different points. He helped me get my original record deal on Mercury Records Nashville, and when I left Mercury he signed me to Warner Bros. We’ve always wanted to work together, and this time around it was the perfect opportunity to reach out to him and ask him to be a part of it.

He’s the consummate musician. He’s also the consummate producer, so I can pick his brain. He also has trusted me to take the reins and gave me room to spread out a little bit and room to learn. It’s great to have that kind of ear to work with.”

“James is one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with, especially at delivering that soulful feeling,” said Worley, who met Otto when he executive-produced the singer’s debut, Days of Our Lives, in 2004. “So it made sense for us to gravitate toward that. James can sing anything, so he needed to find his focus. And that Country Soul focus spoke the most to him. I did push him a little outside of that, though, so at the end of the day we had an album with Country Soul at its core but other types of music that color that from out at the edges.”

In contrast to some new artists who have rocketed seemingly overnight to the top of the charts, Otto’s career has been a slower, steadier ascent. That suits him fine because, he insisted, it “keeps you more grounded. I feel like it’s made me more humble but also wanting it more and really digging in. It’s given me time to really focus in on who I think I am musically and try to deliver that every time. I might have had time to overthink it, but I keep hoping that it is going to work out for me and keep pushing forward and keep working.

What it has given me a chance to do, mostly, is write a lot of songs. I would never have had an ‘In Color’ had I been on the road all the time instead of writing songs. The songwriting has really given me more confidence in my abilities than anything else.”

And he appreciates what he calls “a lot of leeway” that Warner Bros. has given him to make the music he wants to make. “They just kind of handed the reins over and said, ‘We love what you’re doing. Keep doing it.’ So I feel like the overall project is very representative of where I’m at musically and what my live show is — and that’s just what I wanted.”

James Otto Photo Provided by Country Music Association

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