James Otto admits he didn't know what to expect when he and his wife Amy were preparing for the recent birth of their first child, Ava Katherine. Though the broad-shouldered singer-songwriter says he remained calm in the delivery room, nothing could have prepared him for the first time he heard the newborn's little voice.
"When I heard her cry, it absolutely brought me down to my knees," he told CMT.com during a recent interview. "I was completely and totally blown away. I mean, the tears and the whole bit."
Fast forward to now. Though a little sleep deprived, Otto says he couldn't feel more alive at this time in his life. Not only is he elated to be a father, but he says he's finally captured what he likes to call his "country soul" throughout an entire album.
"I feel like a man that's been in search of a sound," he explained. "I've been performing this sound live for a long time, but none of the records I've ever done really focused in on that."
That is, until the release of Shake What God Gave Ya, which encapsulates stories of lust, love, Jesus and downright good times. A smooth concoction of Memphis-style grooves set to Otto's undeniably sultry vocals, his soulful sound is no longer simply sprinkled throughout the album. In fact, listeners can now expect more tunes like his No. 1 hit, "Just Got Started Lovin' You."
What's more, he calls "Sun Comes 'Round Again" the sequel to the hit. "It's for all those that thought 'Just Got Started Lovin' You' was foreplay," he detailed.
Furthermore, Otto co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs on the album, including the first single, "Groovy Little Summer Song," as well as his current single, a more serious and somber number titled "Soldiers & Jesus." When co-writer Chris Wallin came up with the idea after seeing the words on a church billboard, the two discussed the comparisons and came up with the lyrics for the song.
Otto's father was once a drill sergeant, and his grandfather served in the Korean War. Otto, himself, is a Navy veteran who felt a deep connection to the subject matter of the song. Although some people have tried to pin him to a certain political bias, he insists he was simply taking a Christian stance in the song.
"I took the belief of a Christian man -- which I consider myself -- that this is the truth as I see it," he said. "All you can do as a writer is be true to your own values and your own morals. People are either going to love you for that or hate you for it. There's nothing you can do about it. Just be yourself."
Additionally, Otto recorded a song he wrote more than eight years ago in Muscle Shoals, Ala., while visiting famed record producer and songwriter Rick Hall. While in Hall's office, he spotted a guitar hanging on the wall and found out it was the same guitar used on Otis Redding's recording of "You Left the Water Running." He says the groove left in the guitar helped him finish writing "Good Things Gone Bad," a song reminiscent of Ronnie Milsap's "Stranger in My House."
As a result, he asked Milsap, his musical hero and someone he refers to as "the godfather of country music," if he would sing backup vocals for the song. Milsap obliged.
"I sat and watched amazed as he ran his hands across the paper reading in Braille," Otto recalled. "And then that voice just comes out of him -- that iconic, incredible voice comes out. Sitting here even talking about it raises the hair on my arms. I'm such a huge fan that the chance to sit with him and hear him tell stories and to collaborate with him has been the great honor of my career so far."
To add to these achievements, Otto spent the summer performing on Toby Keith's tour with Trace Adkins. In addition to exposing his music to a new audience, he also observed tricks of the trade from his tourmates.
From Adkins, he studied the finesse of handling himself in a large crowd, interacting with fans "in a way that is more than just superficial." Likewise he admired the Big Dog Daddy's remarkable and unwavering business savvy.
"What you need to do is be true to your fans," Otto explained. "Be true to you and structure your business like that. And that's something I've watched Toby do for years. To get a chance to see it up close and personal was awesome."
Reflecting on the recent path his life and career has taken he said, "It's a lot -- and it's all good. I feel like a blessed man, for sure."