My interview originally appeared in the Californian newspaper and can be viewed here:
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Nashville
Appearing 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14
Wagon Wheel Country Music Festival
The Diamond, 500 Diamond Drive, Lake Elsinore
$65 daily, $100 weekend (general admission); $150-$175 weekend (VIP)
James Otto's main mission is to put soul back into country music. On engaging third effort "Shake What God Gave Ya," he definitely succeeds.
"I set out to combine the gritty R&B that I grew up loving with classic country sounds," said Otto. "I really wanted to find something that was uniquely me, but also harkens back to Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap."
The latter country legend adds vocals during smooth album closer, "Good Thing's Gone Bad." The track originated at Fame Music, a studio complex/record company in Muscle Shoals, Ala. known for fostering classic soul music.
"I wrote it on a guitar that once belonged to Otis Redding," Otto said. "Then I started covering (Milsap's) 'Stranger in My House' live as a way to explain country soul to my audience. I'd say, 'check this song out. It reminds me of something else,' I'd break that out in the middle and people would lose their minds."
Otto, 37, said the Milsap collaboration was "an amazing experience. To have him there (in the studio), see him reading in Braille, hear that voice come out of his mouth and sing lyrics that I wrote was incredible, for sure."
The pair is scheduled to reprise the duet for the first time Thanksgiving night on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
Among all the songs on "Shake," the striking "Soldiers & Jesus" is most personal.
"My dad was a drill sergeant in the Army for 23 years, my grandfather was a Korean War vet and I was a Navy vet," he said. "It's near and dear to my heart and something I truly believe. It's great to be able to honor people in my life that are personal heroes."
At the other end of the spectrum is lighthearted "Groovy Little Summer Song," taking a cue from R&B-infused Carolina beach or "shag" music first popularized in the 1960s.
"That was actually inspired by a December in San Diego," Otto said. "I went down there to do a Christmas show and was really hoping for warm, sunny weather and a beautiful couple of days. When I got there, it was cold, just like everywhere else. I played the guitar lick and wrote that chorus in the back of the bus."
A typical Otto gig is very high energy.
"As my album title suggests, I want you to go out there and shake what God gave you," he said. "We want people to dance and have a good time. I look as a concert as a way to celebrate and get away from everyday life. Forget about problems in the world."
When informed about who is sharing a stage with him at Wagon Wheel, Otto admitted to being a huge fan of Dwight Yoakam and Lee Ann Womack.
"That's a killer lineup," he said. "I'm proud to be a part of it. To see somebody like Dwight Yoakam ---- who I think is one of the truly great contemporary artists and somebody I think will go down as a country music legend ---- is always a great opportunity."
Initially drawn to classic rock music like Led Zeppelin and Bob Seger (to whom he bears a slight vocal resemblance) while growing up in Ft. Lewis, Wash., Otto saw the country music light after a two-year period living in Alabama.
"It was junior high," he said. "I discovered Hank Williams Jr., Waylon (Jennings) and Willie (Nelson), Charlie Daniels Band ---- all this great stuff. That's when it really struck me and I decided I wanted to be a country artist."
Following Naval duty (Otto attended boot camp in San Diego and also lived there briefly), Otto set his sights on Nashville. Alongside friends Big Kenny and John Rich, they started the Musik Mafia collective that gathered weekly to play a local nightclub in the early 2000s.
"It was about freedom to do whatever you wanted," he said. "The Nashville scene and songwriter nights had grown a little stale. There wasn't a lot of thinking outside the box. What we wanted was a young, energetic, fun-filled evening of entertainment. It was like a variety show and the hip spot to be on Tuesday nights at 10."
The scene bred a bunch of interesting characters, including Gretchen Wilson.
Since the release of his 2004 major label debut "Days of our Lives," Otto has notched six top 40 singles, including "Just Got Started Lovin' You," a country chart topper in '07 and the most played song on country radio in 2008.
"It was something you work for your entire life," Otto, said of the John Rich-produced hit. "I've definitely had a long road in Nashville. Before that, I was playing in clubs ---- it was an incredibly powerful feeling and the most insane time of my life ---- I did 300 shows that year."
Otto suddenly became a sought after writer ---- even more so after working on Jamey Johnson's "In Color," which won top honors at the ACM and CMA awards (he also contributed to Zac Brown Band's latest album).
"Having a 'Song of the Year' is a big deal among songwriters and was a huge honor for me," he said. "It's something I never expected to happen. It's been a true blessing and emboldened me to go out and write as much as possible. Just dig in, you know?"