Despite His Ballads, James Otto Wants to Rock

He Went From Living Next to a Crack House to Opening for Shania Twain

From the time James Otto came to Nashville in 1998, things could only get better.

“After my divorce, when I moved to town, I didn’t know anybody,” the 30-year-old singer-songwriter says. “I wasn’t so broken up about the divorce. It was more that I didn’t know anybody, didn’t have a job and didn’t have a place to live. Basically, I got an apartment in East Nashville, almost right next to a crack house. At night, people were shooting off guns in the middle of the night, and it was definitely a hard time. But I wrote some of the best songs in my life right there, and it made me who I am today, no question. It adds a little character.”

Otto himself is a big character. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, he’s built like a football player, though he traded in the jersey for a guitar while still in high school in Washington state. After working in the Northwest after graduation, he joined the Navy for two years. Following his duty, he started playing in clubs and bars but ultimately sold everything but his acoustic guitar and moved to Music City.

Once in Nashville, he worked about 60 hours a week and spent his nights at songwriters’ nights. He and friend Scott Parker cut six songs to shop a deal at Mercury Records. They liked what they heard at a showcase and signed him the next day. After numerous delays and failed singles (such as “The Ball”), his debut album finally arrived on March 9.

Though he thoroughly enjoyed opening a leg of Shania Twain’s arena tour, Otto is more accustomed to the smaller venues. (“I always had kind of a raspy voice, and it was probably from smoking and drinking too much and being in bars all the time,” he says.) He also found some success with “Days of Our Lives,” a single about how a brush with death can quickly remind you what really matters in life. It’s slick, sure, but it’s also brought some name recognition.

“I think ‘Days of Our Lives’ was definitely on the commercial side of what I do and trying to get radio on our side,” he says. “Now we’re going to come with the stuff that my album was all about in the first place, which was more rockin’ country music. That’s one thing that’s been missing from country for a long time. You do have some people starting to do it. You got Hank Jr. making a new record, but you have Montgomery Gentry and those guys pushing the envelope quite a bit. Keith Urban has done a good job on his albums of getting that side of him on there. You have hotter guitar-playing styles and things like that.”

He continues, “I like seeing that kind of music starting to make a comeback. I don’t think it’s reached anywhere near its peak and I think we’re going to see a lot more people like that. You have Kid Rock showing interest in country music, and you’ve got Big & Rich coming out with a record that has absolutely all these really cool styles of music — from rock to rap to country and all that stuff — mixed into one album. To me, that’s what country needs if you want to bring a younger audience to the fold like we had back in the ’90s.”

Like Big & Rich (“Wild West Show”), Otto found himself at the center of the Musik Mafia, a collective of songwriters and musicians who love country music but give it their own spin. Another member of that group in Gretchen Wilson (“Redneck Women”), whom he calls “one of the most killer singers I’ve ever seen.” He dropped by her video set for encouragement and ended up as the guy who keeps hitting on Tanya Tucker. However, he has not yet filmed his own video.

Still, if that opportunity presents itself, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine cameos from Big & Rich and Wilson.

“That’s what country music used to always be about — artists that banded together,” says Otto. “That’s what I loved about the ’70s and ’60s of country music. Everybody was … for one another, instead of in competition with one another. You had Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr. and all these people that banded together and were like, ‘Man, this is what country music is about to us. Whether what you’re making over here, if it’s for you or not, we’re making the kind of music that’s for us.’ They found their niche and it was a support group in a way. All those guys were like, ‘We’re going to make music in the way we want to make it.’”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.