James Otto titled his new album Sunset Man, but he could have just as aptly dubbed it Persistent Man. The album has been nearly five years in the making, during which time Otto saw the careers of his buddies Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson skyrocket. Now it looks like it’s finally his turn.
The week it was released, Sunset Man hit the Billboard country albums chart at a resounding No. 2, just 1,400 copies shy of ousting George Strait’s Troubadour from the peak. At the same time, Otto’s lead single, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” was in the Top 5 and moving up, powered in no small part by a sexy, sweet-talkin’ music video. And just Monday (May 5), Otto learned that “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” has become his first No. 1 single.
Otto co-wrote nine of the album’s 11 songs and co-produced it with the ubiquitous John Rich of Big & Rich and Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts. He admits he didn’t approach the project with any particular concept or organizing principle in mind.
“I wish I could say that I did,” he notes. “I wanted it to be representative of me and [the growth] I’ve had as a man over the last five or six years. I think it became that simply because I did change a lot from the time I started making the record to the time I ended it. When I started, I wasn’t married. I was getting out of a record deal and looking to get into a new one. I changed a lot, and the songs I wrote changed quite a bit along the way with it. The record kind of followed my journey.”
The record deal Otto was getting out of was the one he’d been in with Mercury Records. That alliance yielded the 2003 album, Days of Our Lives, and three chart singles, none of which rose higher than the Top 30. Although he specifies certain of his complaints with Mercury on his Web site, Otto is no longer inclined to discuss that period.
“I don’t want to talk too much about things that happened in the past over there,” he says. “My whole deal is that I’m just really glad to be on to this new record. And I feel like I’ve done the best work of my life right now. … I’m extremely proud of the record we made, and I’m proud of a lot of stuff that was on that last record.”
Released on the Warner Bros. label, Sunset Man is, by turns, combative, sensual, pensive, whimsical, defeated and hopeful — a mood or a situation for virtually everyone. The most dramatic creation is “Where Angels Hang Around,” a song that places the listener in the mind of a frightened father who’s driving his young cancer-stricken daughter to the St. Jude hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
“I wrote that song with Monty Criswell,” Otto says. “He talked to me about a friend of his whose child was diagnosed with cancer and what a difficult thing that would be to go through. It really touched me, that sentiment. I watched my mother go through breast cancer when I was a little kid, and my grandmother died from cancer just a couple of years ago.” Radio stations around the country have used the song in their fund-raisers for St. Jude, Otto reports.
The two songs Otto didn’t co-write are “For You,” a Jim Brown-Liz Hengber collaboration, and “The Man That I Am” by Cory Mayo and Craig Wiseman.
“I’ve probably written a thousand songs since I’ve been in Nashville,” Otto notes. “So I could have filled the whole record with my songs. But I think you’ve got to ask yourself as an artist if you’re just filling the record because they’re your own songs or because they’re the best songs. I really wanted these songs to be the best, and I feel that these two were better than anything else I’d written.”
A native of Washington state, Otto became attracted to country music as a teenager while living in Alabama. “I tried to start bands in high school,” he recalls, “but I never really got anything going. I moved to Seattle in the summer I graduated and tried to find a country band, but I wasn’t old enough to get into clubs and I didn’t find anything remotely country.”
Otto got himself “pretty deep in debt” as a result of a move to Seattle. Raised in a military family, he decided he might be able to pay off his debts through by enlisting in the Navy, which he did. After completing his tour of duty, he returned to Washington and joined the Desert Fire Band, a group that performed cover versions of Top 40 country hits.
In 1997, when he was 24, Otto finally summoned up the courage to leave the band and move to Nashville. “I didn’t know a soul, man. I didn’t have a job. … But I knew where I was [in Washington] was a dead end musically. I could play gigs, but I was never going to get anywhere.”
In Nashville, Otto found solace — and direction — at a songwriters’ hangout called the Broken Spoke.
“I used to go there all the time and watch guys like Tony Lane and Reese Wilson,” he says. “Those were the guys that mesmerized me with their songwriting. They just blew me away. I idolized them. Whenever they would say something nice to me or compliment me in any way, I definitely took it to heart. I wanted to be like they were. I spent years in that place trying to perfect writing songs.”
Eventually, Otto became a regular at the saloon. “I was there five or six nights a week for a couple of years,” he says. “That was home away from home. When I wasn’t at work, I was there.” The aspiring singer’s day job was driving an oil truck. “I delivered 55-gallon drums of oil all across Middle Tennessee,” he says. “I had a great boss there that would let me do whatever I needed to do musically.”
Otto struck his deal with Mercury in 1999 or 2000 — he can’t remember which — and soon after helped found the artists’ collective that’s now known as the MuzikMafia. “When I joined MuzikMafia, nobody [else] had anything going on. John Rich was John Broke. His record deal hadn’t taken off at RCA. I was actually the only one with a record deal at the time.
“Then my record deal [at Mercury] disappeared as Gretchen’s and Big & Rich’s stars took off. The great thing about MuzikMafia was that everybody agreed to reach back and help their brothers out. When they made it, they were going to give [other musicians] a hand up and let them play on their stages and do whatever they could to help them make it. I always believed in that. That was one of the things that was most appealing to me. It was about making music the way you wanted to make it, but it was also about working for something more than yourself. It seemed like a nobler cause to me than just working on my own. I feel that it’s made us all strong.”
A friend who admired Otto’s writing helped him secure a publishing contract — his first — with Scream Music. It was there that he had his first songwriting success, a cut on a Confederate Railroad album. Later, when he signed his record agreement with Mercury, he moved his publishing to Universal. Now he handles his own songs.
DeMarcus co-produced three cuts with Otto on Sunset Man. “The way I met Jay was that he started dating my wife’s sister,” Otto explains. “Amy and I had been together like a year and a half when Alison and Jay met. … We started becoming friends, and then we started writing songs together. Eventually I asked him to do a demo session with me of a couple of songs that I had found and wanted to cut — one that I’d written and one that he and I had written. Those tracks ended up being the songs on this record that he produced.”
Besides various solo appearances this summer, Otto will also be running the road with Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the Rowdy Frynds tour and later with Brooks & Dunn and possibly Taylor Swift. But surely the sweetest situation for Otto will occur June 8 when he takes the stage at Nashville’s mammoth LP Field to sing for the crowd gathered there for the CMA Music Festival.
“It’s really exciting,” he says. “I got to watch Big & Rich and Gretchen do the same thing the years their records took off. I was supposed to be on [the smaller] River Stages this year, but they invited me to come over to the big stage and play with the big boys.”