Most of the one-hit wonders I cover in this column come from the times before I became a big chart watcher, so it wasn't until after the fact that I discovered their lack of prolonged success. Or in some cases, I just barely remember them at all. But one that I definitely remember plain as day is James Otto, who, after a false start, ended up with the biggest country song of 2008 and then seemed to completely fall off the radar afterward.
Otto was born on an Army base in Washington state, but lived in several parts of the country. He grew up listening to his mother's country music, and his father and grandfather were both part-time musicians as well. He later served in the Navy before moving to Nashville in 1998. Eventually, he co-founded the MuzikMafia, a loose and eclectic group of singer-songwriters including the likes of Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson. By 2002, this group had seen its first chart action — not with Otto, but rather with Shannon Lawson, whose Mercury Records album Chase the Sun produced his only Top 40 hit to date with the fabulous "Goodbye on a Bad Day."
However, Otto wasn't far behind. Only four months later, he made his first chart bow, also on Mercury, with "The Ball". The song only made it to #45, and while advance presses of what would become his debut album had leaked, Mercury instead decided to hold off. (The song's B-side, "Long Way Down," was released as a single afterward, but it didn't chart.) It was nearly 16 months later, in October 2003, when Otto finally re-entered the charts with "Days of Our Lives" which squeaked its way into the #33 position. This song, which was not on the advance copy of the album, served as its title track. Its followup, "Sunday Morning and Saturday Night," barely charted at all, so Otto was dropped from Mercury. I'm actually quite surprised that "Days of Our Lives" in particular wasn't a hit: its message of living in the here and now because the future isn't guaranteed has been covered before, but Otto's take was certainly one of the most soulful and passionate takes on this important message. (And apparently, a few other people in Nashville paid attention to the album: Montgomery Gentry also recorded "The Last Thing I Do," which had been cut by Brooks & Dunn before that, and Andy Griggs covered "Long Way Down" in 2008.)
Meanwhile, the aforementioned MuzikMafia's Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson were out there finally getting their names into the mainstream. In Big & Rich's cases, the success was not limited to albums: group member John Rich kept himself busy writing and/or producing seemingly every third song in Nashville between 2005 and 2008. The MuzikMafia even founded its own label, Raybaw Records, an affiliate of Warner Bros. Records Nashville. After an early-bird cameo on both of Cowboy Troy's Raybaw albums, Otto signed with Raybaw himself in 2007 and put out his first single for them, "Just Got Started Lovin' You." Slowly but surely, this song wormed its way up the charts. The song's idea came from a conversation with co-writer D. Vincent Williams about a sultry appeal in Otto's voice, which he compared to Conway Twitty. Indeed, "Just Got Started Lovin' You" boasted a passion hardly seen since Twitty (okay, Jeff Bates did a pretty darn good job in that regard too), and the hook, combined with Rich's tasteful blend of fiddle, steel, and Wurlitzer piano
Unfortunately for Otto, Raybaw closed only a month after the album came out. Warner Bros. Records, of which Raybaw was a subsidiary, successfully pushed the song the rest of the way to #1 in May. With a two-week stay there and a slow chart run overall, it became the biggest hit of 2008 on the Year-End charts. Now, 2008 seemed to be a year of major experimentation: without a clear singular musical trend in place, a few oddities were slipping onto the charts. Otto himself, with his massive sex appeal, surely felt like an anomaly, but in the right way — he stood out without clashing even in the strange mixture that was 2008. Below him, Phil Vassar was experiencing a momentary comeback with a cover of Canadian favorite Paul Brandt; Lady Antebellum were unassumingly scaling the Top 10 with "Love Don't Live Here" — a wonderful song, sure, but their dark horse magnum opus was yet to come and catch everyone off-guard; Blake Shelton was recovering from his Pure BS slump with a tasteful take on Michael Bublé; Jewel, of all people, was trying her hand at country; Jimmy Wayne was about to get his only #1 with a monstrously overproduced but good song, way after his brief fling at stardom in 2003; and there were not one, but two Trisha Yearwood songs on the charts. And just under the Top 40 that May was Jamey Johnson's comeback hit "In Color," a stunning story-song about a grandfather's life stories that Otto co-wrote.
And perhaps it was this unlikely combination, combined with the abrupt closure of his label, that doomed Otto. Maybe it was also a brief waffling in single choices: the up-tempo "Ain't Gonna Stop" was originally going to be single number two, but instead, Warner chose "For You." Now, "For You" is a beautiful ballad — faced with a breakup, the narrator says "You want me to find somebody new / I never thought I'd say this, but girl, congratulations / You found the one thing I can't do for you" — but ballads are always a risky move in the summer, particularly for relative newcomers. "For You" quickly fizzled out at #39. Otto tried the "live for the moment" theme again with "These Are the Good Ole Days" (not quite as good as "Days of Our Lives," but nevertheless worthy), but it failed to take off too.
Come 2009, Otto was ready for his second Warner album. Its lead single was going to be yet another sultry song, "Since You Brought It Up" ("…why don't you bring it over?" Good hook.), but when it also failed to pass the low 30s, it was traded out for "Groovy Little Summer Song." And if ever there were a song that lived up to its name, this one was it. It had that same sultry edge too, but in a more understated and laid-back, playful, catchier fashion. Clearly, marriage and fatherhood didn't tame his edge. (He also sang guest vocals on the album version of Colt Ford's 2010 single "Chicken & Biscuits," although the radio edit traded him out for Rhean Boyer, formerly of the underrated Carolina Rain.) This song did somewhat better, notching only #26. After the well-intentioned "Soldiers & Jesus," whose message no doubt rang true when sung by a former soldier, failed to chart higher than #34, Otto left Warner in 2011. However, he made a little extra scratch by co-writing Zac Brown Band's 2012 hit "No Hurry." This one has a similarly laid-back mellowness equally conducive to both Otto and Brown's styles.
Given that I experienced most of James Otto's career first hand (although less so the Mercury era; I do recall hearing "Days of Our Lives" on American Country Countdown on the way home from church a couple tlimes), I have only one thing to say: shame on you, country radio, for relegating Otto to one-hit wonderdom! Otto's soulful voice seemed equally fit to nearly anything he put out: the passionate make-out songs, the tender ballads, and the sturdy mid-tempos. Perhaps his only misfire was a lack of up-tempo material among his single releases: surely "Ain't Gonna Stop" couldn't have done any worse on the charts than "For You" did. Otherwise, Otto seemed to have everything going for him as far as song choices and musical imagery: surely, as often as country radio chases the female demographic, Otto should've been an A-lister in no time flat. But label changes, especially when "midstream" as was the case with "Just Got Started Lovin' You," are often hard to overcome. Still, three albums is a pretty good showing for someone who can be labeled a one-hit wonder, and Otto seems to have a solid fanbase to this day, so maybe his music has found its calling after all.