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It would probably take someone as unique as James Otto to bring together two such radically different forces in country music as John Rich of Big & Rich and Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts. One is known for his no holds barred, anything-goes approach to recording, while the other has made his name recording catchy, pop-tinged tunes with soaring harmonies and love-soaked lyrics. But the two found common ground in Otto’s talent and stepped up to produce his debut album for Warner Bros., “Sunset Man,” released April 8th, with some pretty impressive results.

A gentle giant with a voice as big as the great outdoors, Otto is an original member of the Nashville phenomenon known as the MuzikMafia. A group of artists who bumped up against barriers within the Music Row system and elected to ignore the lines and just color outside of them, the Mafia birthed country stars like Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson over the past few years. Otto was actually the first to land a record deal while performing with the group during its impromptu jam sessions on Tuesday nights in Nashville, but lost his first deal during A&R changes at his label. He then found a home with the ragtag band of outlaw artists, and more importantly, an artistic family.

“It was more fun to play with Mafia than anywhere else,” admits Otto during an interview at the Country Radio Seminar. “I have more fun playing with the Mafia still today than anywhere else. Because they’re my best friends…Shannon Lawson, and John Nicholson, and a whole crew of people who are my closest friends in the world, and they’ve been through every aspect of this business just like I have. They’ve all had record deals and all been through the disappointments, and we all have that camaraderie that only comes from being forged by fire. We’ve all been in the furnace together, and we all make great music together, and I always will have a blast playing with those guys. You never know what’s going to happen onstage with those guys, and the crowd realizes that.”

Growing up in a divorced family and shuffling back and forth between his mother and his father, (who was a drill sergeant in the military), Otto became accustomed to spontaneity and change early on. He began singing at 4 years old and playing fiddle by 6, and music became one of the only constants in his life. “I moved back and forth between the family a lot, and definitely music was one of those things that was kind of in the blood, and it was definitely a refuge from whatever was going on. I always had music--that was a constant--and I think that really shaped me as a person, for sure.”

Moving to Alabama with his mother as a pre-teen, Otto discovered Hank Williams Jr., Alabama, Charlie Daniels, and John Anderson, and opened a door to a world that would shape his life forever. While he still loved rock and all types of music, he drew special inspiration from the soulful sounds of country’s core. After high school in the Seattle area, he joined the Navy and saw 20 countries while in the service, but music never left his heart or his consciousness, even for a second.

“I was playing guitar on the flight deck of the ship and that’s where I started figuring out how to write songs and what I wanted to do with my life. I did some big military talent searches and stuff, and I just knew this was what I wanted to do. I always came back to singing. Being in the Navy really gave me the courage to leave home and live somewhere else, though. When you spend two years away from your family in a whole different world, you learn you can survive anywhere and you don’t have to be up under your mama’s skirts anymore. You can go ahead and chase your dream. And it gave me the courage to chase after what I wanted.”

Packing up a U-Haul on his birthday in 1997, Otto headed straight for Nashville, and within two years had landed a publishing deal. Playing 5-6 nights a week at a club called the Broken Spoke, he polished his writing skills and within another year had signed a recording contract with Mercury Records. Though the label had six male acts out at the same time and his album got lost in the shuffle, Otto is proud of the project. (His song “Gone” from that project later became a hit for Montgomery Gentry.)

Not long after that, Warner Bros. label executive Paul Worley came calling and offered Otto another shot, along with plenty of other labels. He opted to sign with Warner’s, and promptly enlisted the help of buddy John Rich and his brother-in-law, Jay DeMarcus, to produce the new album. “They both have different takes on the world,” explains Otto. “Jay is a major driving force in Rascal Flatts, and John Rich is a driving creative force in Big & Rich, and they brought two different things out of me. And had it not been for both of them coming in and doing what they did, we wouldn’t have this record. Jay tapped into the more mature side, and John tapped into my more party side, and you’ve got to have a little bit of both. It’s two sides of my personality that are both there, and I think that they were both integral to what we were doing. When I started making this record I wasn’t married, I was in a totally different place and getting into something else, and the record kind of grew with me and matured.”

The self-professed guitar and car geek is totally happy with the results of his latest endeavor, and from the reception of his first single, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” country fans are as well. The tune is motoring up the charts at a rapid-fire pace, and Otto hopes that is a sign of more good things to come. “I had no idea the song was going to be as well received as it has been,” he admits. “It felt like a hit song when we wrote it, but you never know…you don’t know which song is going to connect with people. But I felt like it’s the right introduction to me. I call my music country soul--it’s soulful country music--and this song is a perfect introduction to that. It’s accessible and easy with a great groove, and it’s got a great feel and has that sexual vibe to it, and it seems like people have gravitated to it for those things. So, hopefully it just primes people for the rest of the record, and they’ll like more of what they hear.” / Issue 80 - September 2018
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