James Otto Talks About His Place In Country Soul
In the press release for his new album, James Otto is quoted as saying that he’s the symbolic “love child of Ronnie Milsap and Barry White.” Barry White’s deep soulful baritone became synonymous with groovy love-making songs in R&B and if there was ever an album that tried hard to be the soundtrack to getting your groove on with the special love of your life, Otto’s Shake What God Gave Ya could be it.
The country-soul genre has a long and rich legacy. Artists such as Conway Twitty, the before-mentioned Ronnie Milsap, and Delbert McClinton all have pioneered that crossover country-soul sound and made successful careers out of it. Otto has a clear concept of that rich country history and hopes to etch his name along those that came before him.
Otto was kind enough to carve out a little time out of his relentless touring and promotional schedule to talk with The 9513 about his new album, heroes and inspirations.
A new baby, a new CD and a hospital visit all within a two week period this fall…what on earth were you thinking?
The hospital visit was the only one that wasn’t planned. I had no choice on that one. Obviously the album has been planned for a long time. The baby wasn’t necessarily planned but it’s been the greatest thing ever. This whole year has been incredible. We moved into a new house and sold the old one while my wife is pregnant–and while I’m one the road doing all this stuff. Two weeks after my baby is born, I end up in the hospital. And that was supposed to be my launch week so I missed all this press and all this stuff that was supposed to be going on. It’s been crazy.
Any jokes from your wife or crew that your hospital visit means you’ll go to any great lengths to get out of changing diapers?
(Laughter) There have been some jokes, to be sure. But I am like a NASCAR pit crew when it comes to changing diapers. I’m in and out in like four or five seconds flat.
Good for you. How are you feeling now a few weeks later?
I feel like a new man. I had an intestinal virus and I can tell you that it’s about as glamorous as it sounds. It’s the most physical pain I’ve ever been in. And I’m really glad to be out of the hospital and heading back out onto the road. We’re really glad to be back out there.
And fatherhood is as spectacular as you had hoped?
It is. It’s a lot more difficult than you can ever imagine. Everybody always says how it’s going to change your life–that it’s the hardest thing, but the greatest thing you’ll ever do. It definitely changes your life. It’s definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. You need some Special Forces sleep deprivation technique to get through it. There’s just no sleep involved. You either sleep when they sleep or you don’t sleep at all. Unfortunately, I’m not sleeping when she’s sleeping so I’m usually working on about three or four hours sleep a night.
They obviously didn’t let you go home with enough drugs from the hospital.
(Laughter) They didn’t let me leave with any, no. But while I was there, the morphine was awesome.
Shake What God Gave Ya is a culmination of talking about country soul, playing country soul live for a long time, but never really nailing it on tape yet. We had never really treated it as its own thing and I really wanted–on this album–to go out and do what I really wanted to do. I think my fans have expected it as well. My fans know who I am. And I know it as well. But to get everyone on the same page is something difficult to do. In the past, I’m really proud of those records. There’s nothing I would say bad about them. I love them to death. This album is unique in that it’s my own sound. It’s something I really wanted to do. If this was the album was the last one I ever made, it is one you can point at and say, “This is who he really is.” It makes me stand out for better or for worse.
Is it hard to walk that fine line between artistry and commerciality within the framework of a major label contract?
Sure, man. The line between art and commerce is a thin one. It’s hard to nail either one and get it right. I went about this record with more focus than any other record I’ve made. And I know more who I am. The last couple of years, I’ve had the chance to be on the road full time and play nearly every night. We honed a sound out on the road. In fact, a lot of this record is our demos we cut out on the road. They’re things we started in the studio and then brought up to a master level later. We really made this concept of country soul a reality and really make it its own thing. We really captured a sound that’s unique and that’s what I really wanted.
It’s interesting that you mention that soulfulness as so important to you because there are two key names on the liner notes that embody that well. One is Ronnie Milsap and the other Chris Stapleton. Talk about their roles in this album.
Chris Stapleton is the only guy that got an outside cut on this record. I wrote 10 out of 12 tracks on this. The other two are Chris songs. Chris is a guy that I consider to be Nashville’s best singer and one of its best songwriters. If all you know about Chris Stapleton is the SteelDrivers, you only know half of the story. The SteelDrivers are very soulful–I’d almost call it a mountain soul kind of sound–but he’s a very amazing musician beyond that. He’s a guy that when I started putting together this record, I went to and said, “I want your entire catalog.” I wanted everything he ever cut because what he does fits in really well with what I do. He’s unlike anyone else in Nashville. We’ve become good friends and collaborators and he’s a guy I’m honored to know.
And how about the collaboration with Ronnie Milsap on “Good Things Gone Bad?”
Ronnie is a guy I’ve always thought to be the godfather of country soul. I can’t claim ownership of the genre. I’m only taking a sound that he refined in the 70’s and early 80’s and trying to bring it to a modern day. I want to get that sound happening again because I loved it so much growing up. He’s a guy that’s had 40 #1 hits. He’s a guy whose music I know back and forth and really influenced me since I was a kid.
The opportunity to work with him was something I always thought was out of the realm of possibility. Over the last couple years we’ve gathered enough success, I got in the position of being able to reach out to him. I called and said, “I’ve got this song that I’ve been playing it for years. It’s a song that I wrote on a guitar that used to belong to Otis Redding. It has you written all over it. I’m hoping you’ll give it a listen and if you like it, you’ll consider recording it with me.” Thank God he obliged us.
I watched in amazement as he’d run his hands across the paper and read in Braille the lyrics I had written. To hear that voice come out of him was amazing. That voice is iconic. That voice is one of Nashville’s finest. I don’t think Ronnie is appreciated for being the true artist and brilliant musician than he is. His contribution is completely undervalued. I want to be a guy that shines a light back on what he did. It was the cherry on top of this record to have him come sing on it.
Any favorite tracks on the album?
That is definitely one of them for sure. I consider that duet to be the greatest moment I’ve had yet in the music business to work with one of my ultimate heroes. I’m a big fan of “Soldiers and Jesus” which is my current single. Some of the reason for that is that I’m the son of a drill sergeant that spent 23 years in the U.S. Army. My grandfather was a Korean War vet and I myself was in the US Navy. I have the utmost respect for the men and women that choose to wear those uniforms. I say choose because it’s still an all-volunteer military. They’re there doing a job that they don’t always want to do, but that the government has asked them to do. They’re the ones who stood up and said, “I want to do that.” That’s basically offering to live and die for our freedoms and for our lives and for our way of life. I have deep admiration for that. And I’m also a guy who considers himself a Christian. I’m not saying that the sacrifice of our soldiers is equal to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ because Christ died for our sins. What I’m saying is that there are parallels to be drawn. I haven’t come across any one else in my life who has chosen to lay down their life for me except for God and the people in uniform.
This is album number three for you. What have you learned on this album that you didn’t know on the first two?
A whole bunch. A lot of that was learned on the road and just being in the music business longer. The main thing I learned is to be forceful and true to myself. I need to make sure that I’m doing what I love. This is my name on this record and at the end of the day, I have to sing all the songs. If I don’t love them and I don’t believe them, people will feel that. For me, this album was making a statement. This is who I am and this is what I do. Hopefully it’s a signature sound for me.
I’ve got two more questions for you–both meant pretty open-ended. How do you define country music?
I define country music as whatever country people listen to. If a song and music relates to the salt-of-the-earth people, it can really cross a broad spectrum to me. I love being part of Jamey Johnson’s album. Being a part of “In Color” and part of his new album, I respect classic country deeply. That’s country music to my heart and soul. But it’s not exactly 100% who I am because I didn’t grow up that way. I love to listen to it and I love to write it. But when it came to define my own record, I had to do it slightly different. There’s a lot of pop-country out there, there’s rock-country and there’s classic country- and everything in-between. I think soulful country fits fine within those confines.
You’ve got a table for four in Nashville’s swankiest restaurant and you’ve got space for three others. They can be past or present. Who are they and why?
That’s an interesting question. It’s a tough one, actually.
I would want Willie Nelson there because what he’d bring to the table would make the conversation a whole lot more interesting. (Laughter) He’d be a “drink a little drink and smoke a little smoke” kind of thing. I also consider him a purveyor of gypsy jazz and blends of lots of different kinds of music. He’s a hero of mine. He took jazz and soul and country music and made it his own. He was never defined by a single genre of music.
Kris Kristofferson would be another. I think he’s the greatest songwriter of all time. To hear their stories would be an amazing thing. I would love to hear those guys “talk shop.” The insider information to the life that they saw and what country music was back in the day would be cool.
I’d also bring Ray Charles to that table because he’s a guy that made one of my favorite albums of all time, Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music. He’s obviously one of the greatest soul singers of all time. He was a guy that could move in and out of different genres. Most importantly, he was respected by all of those genres equally. He lived a life that I think was truly interesting.
I want to add one more, though. I’d throw Ronnie (Milsap) in there too. I know Ray was a deep influence on Ronnie. He met Ray at an early age and with his country and soul roots, he got a lot out of that meeting. He inspired him in a lot of ways. It would be interesting to hear that conversation now that he’s gone through his career. It would be an interesting conversation. Wouldn’t it be cool hearing what Ray now thought of all of Ronnie’s music? They were genre benders.
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