Sunday, June 1, 2014
2014 Miner Family Winery Stage
James Otto may be 100 percent country, but he’s also got a heart full of soul. On his third album, Shake What God Gave Ya, Nashville’s breakout star puts his God-given lung power to work on a set of songs that make even more determined use of the old-school R&B grit in his powerhouse voice. “I look at my sound as somewhere between Nashville and Memphis,” says Otto, setting the new record’s compass point firmly on the map.
Although Shake What God Gave Ya marks the first time he’s explored the country-soul sound so devotedly on record, it won’t come as any shock to anyone who heard his earlier smash, “Just Got Started Loving You.” Which is a category that should cover just about every country fan, since that tune was declared the No. 1 country single of 2008 by Billboard. When it came time to craft a full-length follow-up, Otto took that ringing vote of confidence as license to lean more heavily on those influences this time around. In other words, he just got started being soulful.
There’s a long and storied tradition of this soulful influence in country music—just not so much lately. Otto’s self-appointed task was to contemporize a hybrid style associated with heritage stars like Milsap and Conway Twitty and add some Southern-rock edge to the easygoing soul. In this, he had the strong support of Warner Music Nashville president and CEO John Esposito. And as a collaborator he had revered producer Paul Worley, who was responsible for the Dixie Chicks’ 10-times-platinum albums, the biggest hits by Martina McBride and Big & Rich, and most recently helmed the biggest-selling album of 2010, by Lady Antebellum.
Otto hails from the great Northwest, which hasn’t turned out a huge number of country stars, though it hasn’t been for lack of local interest. “Country music is actually really big up there. I know when people think of Washington state they think of Seattle, but the side of WA that I’m from, which is the high plains/desert side, is all straight-up agricultural.” Not that he isn’t equally proud of being a Nashvillian, which you might guess from his ability to pinpoint the date he made the move (“thirteen years ago, August 4”).
Otto was one of the cofounders of Nashville’s genre-bending Muzik Mafia, whose weekly club shows in the early and mid-‘00s were the springboard to stardom for pals like Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson. “I had been one of the original founding members of Muzik Mafia, from the very first show, and that was where I started thinking I might still get a shot at making music the way I wanted to make it,” he says. “It was very influential in my musical thinking, allowing me to be much more adventurous musically than any record label was going to let me be.” Anyone who attended those historic shows knew about Otto’s full range of influences. The most popular song in his set in those early days was perhaps the most R&B-inflected thing he’s ever written—“Good Thing’s Gone Bad,” which Otto never put on an album until now. But whatever fraternity Otto falls into—whether it was Muzik Mafia in the mid-‘00s or a Toby-led tour now—it’s clear that he has a singular identity that doesn’t exactly jibe with anything any other leading light in country music is up to. And that’s all right with him. Where he soulfully leads, he believes others will follow.
“As much as there’s all these different fractures of country music these days—you have pop country, rock country, traditional country, alt-country, and all these things in between—I don’t know why country-soul couldn’t exist right alongside it all.” Shake What God Gave Ya is such a blast, spanning the spectrum from rump-shaking motivationals to pure romance, that even if Otto were country music’s sole soul man, that’d be genre enough.