James Otto Discusses Some Groovy Little Country Songs: The Roughstock Interview

Recently we had the opportunity to speak with James Otto about a multitude of topics including his just released single "Groovy Little Summer Song," his upcoming album, and 2008's #1 hit "Just Got Started Loving You" amongst many other topics.

James Otto has been working in Nashville honing his craft as both a songwriter and as a recording artist for over a decade now.  In 2008 he came out with “Just Got Started Loving You” and went on to have that year’s biggest hit while also moving a boatload of albums.  While follow-up singles didn’t rise as high as that single, James continued to tour and earn fan after fan and has just released a lead-off single from his third album (second for Warner Nashville) in “Groovy Little Summer Song.”  In this exclusive discussion from CRS 2010, we talk about the singles, his live show, his influences and some of his contemporaries working in country music.

Matt Bjorke:  You’ve certainly had an interesting career of highs, lows and having a few label deals here and there. Then you scored 2008’s #1 single with “Just Got Started Loving You.” How does it feel to have that success with a great song?

James Otto:  It’s been amazing.  After 12 years in Nashville to have that kind of succession a single like that was unexpected.  It was a great feeling of ‘I did the right thing with the last decade in my life in sticking around Nashville and working for it.  It has been amazingly gratifying and has continued to be a blessing for me and my family.

Matt: You recently won ACM and CMA Awards as a co-writer with Jamey Johnson and Lee Thomas Miller for “In Color.”  How amazing was it to not only win an award like that but to get it with your friends?

James: You know it’s always an amazing thing to have your peers say that you deserve an award like that.  “Song of the Year,” well it’s the most coveted award for a songwriter and I’ve been a professional songwriter for the last 10 years and I know some incredible writers who I think are far superior writers to me.  So to get that kind of award is an incredible thing and to be and even better to get it with somebody like Jamey and see what it has done for his career.  I think he’s an extremely deserving artist but you know, it’s also one of those things, it’s kind of luck of the draw that we won and that it was as big as it was because I know there are so many deserving artists and songs out there.

Matt: so your last album showcased soulful tunes like the hit single and title track, so did you hope to hone in that type of Ronnie Milsap, Don Williams, Conway Twittyromantic  soulful thing for the next album?

James: I’ve been joking that I’m not Barry White, I’m very white…(laughs).  It’s a sound that I’ve always loved, a mix of those two sounds that I think that Conway did so well, that Ronnie did so well and what Charlie Rich and a whole bunch of others did extremely well.  I’ve always been a fan love songs, sexy songs, that kind of thing and I’d much rather have a bunch of women at my shows than a bunch of guys so Jamey can have all the drunk rednecks that he wants and they can send all their wives to my shows, so it works out really well…(laughs)

Matt:  Jamey doesn’t talk to anybody in his shows, he just plays…

James: Yes, he just plays, which is awesome and he’ll play for 3-4 hours too.  It’s like a bruce Springsteen concert too, it’s never ending but it’s awesome, man.  You can stay there and listen to great songs delivered by someone who I think is one of the greatest traditional country singers right now.

Matt: What made “Groovy Little Summer Song” the right song to preview your upcoming album?

James: I think that it’s the right song for a host of reasons.  First off, it has that groovy, soulful sound. Secondly, I think everybody in the country has had a rough, long and cold winter that everyone is looking forward to summer where everyone can put the top down on their car and get some rays. Thirdly, it has the right vibe and sets the tone for the rest of the record, which is a country soul album and I think it works perfectly to describe the rest of the record.

Matt: Who are you working with on the new record?

James: Paul Worley and I are producing it together.  Some of them I produced myself some of it we did together.  He got me signed to Warner Brothers years ago and then left the label and then helped me get my first record deal with Mercury too….

Matt: I love that record….

James: Oh, thank you very much, I appreciate it and I love that record too.  Paul was an executive producer on that album and has always been in my corner but he’s never really got in and produced on the albums and I thought that there was nobody better to do it given all his support of me throughout my career and he was gracious enough to go do it and he’s probably having one of his best years of his career….

Matt: Lady Antebellum comes to mind…

James: Lady Antebellum is blowing up and he happened to be the right guy.  So I’m really proud to be working with one of Nashville’s great talents and someone I think is a legendary producer.

Matt:  I’ve seen some webisodes he’s done and I think if there was a producer to learn from he’d be the guy…

James:  He’s the guy to learn from.  He’s such a good-hearted person too, when you meet him, you instantly like him.  He’s also a musician, he’s a guitar player and comes from that place and he loves music deep in his soul and you can tell when he gets to that place.  It’s like childlike creativity.  And that’s what you want in somebody to work with, somebody who loves music as much as you do and wants to work with you.

Matt: And somebody who wants what you want…

James: Yeah, I needed somebody who would work with me and not have me work for them and he’s definitely been that.

Matt: So you’ve gotten to perform with many artists the past few years, what have been some highlights for you?

James: Just in the last two years I’ve toured with many artists and lets see, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Jr., and I can honestly say that Hank Williams, Jr. is the reason I got into country music in the first place.  He was the guy that turned me on.  At the time, When I was 13 years old, country music wasn’t cool. It was my grandparents music and my friends weren’t listening to it but when Hank Jr. came along, it was the beginning for me. My friends were listening to it, I was listening to it and then I really dug into classic country from all over the years but Hank Jr. was the beginning for me.

Matt: What does the new digital age mean for you and your career, how has it helped shape your relationship with the fans?

James:  Honestly, I think that’s one of the best things about the modern era, the contact with fans.  MySpace, Twitter, facebook or whatever else is coming around the corner because there is always something coming…

Matt: Well there’s Google Buzz…

James: See, there you go.  It will take care of all of ‘em and right now its’ the best way to have direct contact with people that you’re playing your music for.  I have a core group of hardcore fans called the Ottomaniacs, they’ve named themselves the Ottomaniacs and so I always like to play the music for them before I play it for anybody else and see their reactions and they’ll tell me right away if it’s a song they expect from me or not.  And developing personal relationships, I know a lot of what’s going on with my fans and it’s something you never had before, so I think that’s a good thing. 

Matt: Well, your label has actually been proactive with that with the A&R thing that they have on the website.

James: Yeah, we were one of the first with that and Scott Hendricks came to me with the idea and said that he didn’t know if it’d be good or not and I thought, “how could it be bad to play it for the fans first?” They’re gonna be the ones who request it and more than anybody else they’re the ones you want the opinions of.  In fact, they picked “Summer song” as the first single through that. 

Matt: I’ve heard about it and visited it a few times but haven’t dug in with it as much as fans probably have…

James: Sure, yeah. We put up a bunch of songs and got feedback and there were lots of comments about how much they loved “Summer Song” so we listened to ‘em.

Matt: I recently saw you at the Festival On The River in Arlington, WA…

James: Yeah, man it’s beautiful up there too…so gorgeous…

Matt: So I know what it’s like to see a James Otto show but how would you describe it to somebody who hasn’t seen you perform before?

James :  you know what, we like to put on a high energy show but also take you on a rollercoaster of emotions and the album does that and we’ve got the ballads, the up-tempos and the mid-tempos and everything else but we like to keep the shows as fun as possible. We like to get audiences into what we’re doing with crowd participation so we do numerous things throughout our shows to get people to dance and loosen up because a lot of times you go to concerts and see fans just sitting there and I’ve always thought that a concert was more than that.  It was your chance to interact with people.  You go to a Jimmy Buffett show and the audience is singing along and being part of the show.  So that’s what I like to try to do with my shows, to get people interactive with us.  Yes, we’re the entertainment but we want it to be a great experience.  

Matt: To get them to enjoy themselves…

James: Yeah, we’re really building it and still learning as we develop the show and I think I got off track a little while back about who I toured with and open for.  I got to go out with ZZ Top and Brooks & Dunn and obviously Brooks & Dunn are one of the all-time great duos in country music and they were really gracious with us (the band) and I got to meet Billy Gibbons and I’m a big guitar fanatic and I wanted to be a guitar player when I was a kid.  I didn’t care about singing. I always sang as a kid but being a guitar player was what I wanted to do because it was cooler to me.  So I got to sit and talk with Billy Gibbons and talk guitar and going out on tour with Trace Adkins and Alan Jackson, going out on those tours helps you to build a show.   You’re learning from the greats, and watch people from night after night.  It’s such a great learning experience, at the feet of the masters of the business, it’s an invaluable thing.

Matt: It’s gotta be such a great thing for a new artist to see that, as part of those package tours…

James: Yeah, I don’t know how you do it if you don’t…I don’t know how you learn it unless you inherently have it…

Matt: Like Zac Brown….

James: Well, he’s played thousands of shows by playing night after night and 300 dates a year.  He developed it, the same way we’ve developed ours, and that’s why that band is now a force to be reckoned with.  They do not fool around and are one of the best bands out there right now…

Matt: What would you say to fans that may be learning about you for the first time?

James: If you like a mix of country music, soul music and groovy feel good music, the best way to see me is to catch my live show and see me connect there.

Matt: Well, you do sound like your records, which can’t be said about everyone…(laughs).

James: (laughs) Well, thank you and that’s what we want to be live, to bring energy to the fans and hopefully it translates to the people who watch the show.