James Otto Pours His Soul Into New Music and Fatherhood
James Otto debuted on the country scene as one of the godfathers of the MuzikMafia alongside Big and Rich. The singer/songwriter quickly proved he had a booming, soulful voice and big heart to match. After a brief stint on Mercury Records, he released his Warner Bros. debut, 'Sunset Man,' in 2008, produced by John Rich and Rascal Flatts' Jay DeMarcus (James' brother-in-law). The album contained the smoldering hit, 'Just Got Started Lovin' You,' which became Billboard's No. 1 country single of 2008. That year was a major one for the artist, as he also co-penned the Grammy-nominated Jamey Johnson smash, 'In Color,' with Jamey and Lee Thomas Miller, taking home ACM and CMA statues for Song of the Year for the tune.
James returned to the studio this year with producer Paul Worley to record his second Warner Bros. effort, 'Shake What God Gave Ya,' which has already proven a big success at radio with the infectious hit, 'Groovy Little Summer Song,' and touching ballad, 'Soldiers and Jesus.' 'The last few months have been eventful for the gentle giant, with preparations for the new album, the birth of a new baby, and an illness that sidelined him -- but not for long. The Boot caught up with James to chat, as he eagerly weighed in on everything from his new single to the battle of Chihuahua vs. baby in the Otto household!
Your latest single, 'Soldiers and Jesus,' addresses the sacrifice military men and women make. Why was it important to you to write a patriotic tune for this new project?
I thought it was something poignant for our time. Anything we can do to shine a light on those guys is a good thing. Even the press, they report on it every day but the sacrifice becomes minimized and it becomes a generalized idea of war vs. a personal thing. This family over here is suffering, and that is the more important story ... the sacrifice people make. We're doing it for a purpose, but those guys didn't go there on their own volition, they're doing a job they need to do. I don't know if people understand the sacrifice they make. But we all know people who have been affected by what's going on around the world, whether it's a friend or a family member. I think people in the country genre understand it; they're the ardent supporters of the military, and they're usually the ones being called up to go. They make up a lot of our men and women in the service. This song is one of those things meant to highlight that, and if they don't understand, maybe this song will help.
Are you planning to do a video for the song?
Absolutely. We're taking in ideas right now. I want to be able to do something good for those men and women. So we're thinking [about] what charity can we help, what can we do to actually use this song as a tool to not only raise awareness of the situation of men and women dying over there, but what we can do for them when they get back.
'Groovy Little Summer Song' was inspired by the shag music of South Carolina. Did you listen to that music growing up?
I did hear it some growing up. My actual first real shag experience was from Alabama's song, 'Shagging on the Boulevard.' I heard that, and then I got more into shag music ... it's a soulful sound, and it embodies that beach sound, and that's what we wanted to do was to bring summer into your mind and really celebrate all the great things about summer. It was a lighthearted, fun take on what makes a lot of summer songs as popular as they are. People want to feel that wind-in-your-hair, top-down kind of thing that summer's all about.
Do you feel like you amped up the soul factor even more on this second record? It's really a big part of who you are.
This album is a country soul record, no question about it. It's meant to be blending those R&B grooves with country lyrics and the mentality of a country boy immersed in a little bit of soul and blues. I love Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, anything that came out of Memphis. I'm a huge fan of Sam and Dave, and if you listen, you can definitely hear some Sam and Dave grooves on this record. But what I found was that sound has definitely been in country before ... Ronnie Milsap, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich. I wanted to bring that sound into modern times. Country today can embody more than just one type of country music. There's a place for pop-country but there's also a wonderfully wide open place for a guy like Jamey Johnson to come in and do his thing, or for me to come and do my thing. But what I wanted to do most of all was carve my own niche.
You've said that even your guitars have their own soul!
Yes! Some you look at the scratches and all the things that it's been through, tattered and torn, and those guitars have soul to them. They have more of a story to them and you can feel it when you play them. Ask any guitar player. You can pick up a new guitar off the shelf and it feels one way, but a guitar that's been played for 40 or 50 years sounds a totally different way. That can be inspiring. I've found that even writing on the piano inspires a different thing, so it may be a tonal issue. I don't know how to put it into words that you can feel that, but you really can. I love vintage guitars. I'm starting to collect them. I don't have the finances to collect the guitars that I really like ... they're quite pricey these days!
The title track of the album is a fun song. Is that always a crowd-pleaser?
It is! 'Shake What God Gave You' was one of those songs I wrote in response to being on the road and wanting to get people out of their seats instead of sitting on their butts. I was on the road with Brooks & Dunn, and as an opening act, it's a tough gig. You've got to go out there and find a way and build a set that makes a crowd respond to you and makes them care about you. [The song] was really meant to grab people and say, "You know what, we're here to have a good time, and that's what we want you to do too. We're here to entertain you!" I got off stage after one of the shows and walked back to the back of the bus and started thinking about it and the groove started happening. I wrote the chorus in maybe five minutes.
Trace is the tallest out of all of us. There are some reports he's 6'6", but I think he's 6'7" or 6'8"! He's a giant. I'm 6' 5" and Toby's 6'4". Trace is not only tall, but he's just a huge man. And coming from a guy who's a huge man, I know what I'm talking about! I'm a really big guy ... most people don't know guys my size. So when I'm around Trace, I feel like I'm not that big! But being with those guys, who have been doing it for a decade or more in front of big audiences, and to have that experience to watch those guys and learn from them is amazing. Basically it's like a master class, you watch those guys and you learn from them every night and you end up borrowing or stealing tricks from them. It's just a great way to learn!
Is Toby intense on tour?
He's an intense individual. You don't get to that place where he is in life without having an intense intellect. I don't know that most people necessarily know that much about Toby, but to know how much he's accomplished in his career, in not only just the music business but all the other things he's involved with, he's just an extremely intelligent guy. It's interesting to pick a guy's brain like that.
Congratulations on your gorgeous baby daughter, Ava! How has fatherhood been so far?
It's been really great! It's still pretty new, but I can say that that advice of "get sleep while you can" is definitely true!
Has John Rich offered any parenting advice on fatherhood yet? Will be a little baby MuzikMafia forming anytime soon?
Oh, I don't know if I'm taking parenting advice from John Rich! [laughs] I'm not getting his son and my daughter together for any playdates any time soon! I know John, know him for a long time, and I don't know if I need his kid terrorizing my daughter!
What's been the most surprising thing about being a dad so far?
Just how powerful of an emotion the birth of your child can be. The whole time during labor, I was pretty stoic and calm and relaxed. Even when we went into the final stages of it, where you come close to the baby coming out, I was very calm. But when I heard the baby cry, it broke me down! It was such a crazy, emotional overload that I can't even put into words. It really is a deeply-seeded, emotional thing that I think God puts inside you. It's a spiritual experience when that baby's born.
How has the other baby in the house, your teacup Chihuahua, adapted to Ava?
We worried about that. Actually, we did research online about how you introduce your baby to your animal. They've been the center of attention in the family unit for as long as they've been around, so we worried about it and brought a blanket home early from the hospital that smelled like her, which is one of the things we read you're supposed to do. Obviously, baby things have been trickling into the house for nine months while we knew she was pregnant, so there was some awareness that things were changing. But there's been a weird motherly instinct, rather than a nasty "I don't get the attention anymore." She doesn't seem to be jealous at all. If the baby's crying, she's freaked out, she wants to make sure that we know the baby's crying and we need to come take care of this. She's always trying to come up and kiss her, and she's very interested in what that baby's doing at all times.