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James Otto gets ready for days of our lives

By Jeffrey B. Remz, March 2004

James Otto's debut was a long time in coming. It's not that the Washington native has taking his sweet old time.

It's that his album, "Days of Our Lives," has. The disc originally was slated for release in spring 2003.

But due to a single or two not doing so well, the disc was delayed. He also ended up returning to the recording studio and cut four more tracks, including the title cut.

"It was tough," says Otto in a telephone interview from Nashville where he has lived since 1998. "It was definitely hard to sit back and on the sidelines for a while. In the end, it was probably just fine, and things worked out just fine. It was not too bad."

Otto, a strapping 6-5, says when he went into recording the album, "honestly, I wanted to make a record that was a rollercoaster of emotions, and I wanted to make a record that pushed the envelope of country music a little bit with some of the rocking stuff that we did. We did some stuff was inside the box like 'Days of Our Lives' and 'The Ball.' The rest of the album was full of uptempo rocking tunes and stuff that was really personal to me. I think that's what sets the record apart from other things. All of it is country, but some of it is influenced by the classic rock music and southern rock music."

If you hear what sounds like a mix of Hank Jr. meets Bob Seger, that would come as no surprise since both were major league musical influences on Otto.

"I think honestly that he's the reason I play music," says Otto of Seger. "He's the guy my dad played a lot. When I heard his stuff on the radio, it spoke to me the most. I say Hank Jr. is the reason I play country music today. It was a mix of a lot of those things."

When Otto was a youth, "growing up listening to the country music on the radio at the time - the Oak Ridge Boys and all that - just wasn't speaking to a young kid. When I heard the outlaw stuff, like Hank Jr. and Waylon and Willie and all that stuff, that was something that was exciting."

"He's saying stuff that I identified with, stuff that's cool and interesting," says Otto of Hank Jr. "His lyrics were great. He also had the party attitude. He was crazy. That's what we came to identify with. He had some of the rock and roll spirit that we love and also embodied a lot of the truth like country music is supposed to do. It was supposed to be honest and say something about yourself. He was true to who he was and didn't care about what he had to say."

Otto, who wrote half of the dozen songs, tends to favor story songs whether he penned them or outside writers. He opts for uptempo songs that rock a bit, but he also accords himself well on ballads ("She Knows").

"The Ball," originally released as a single in 2002, is a seemingly sad song about dropping a pass that could have won a high school football game (Otto played football in high school, but quit as a senior to pursue his love of music) and loses his girl. Just when you think this is a real tearjerker, the singer expresses joy because ultimately he marries someone else and has a child.

Otto gets personal in such songs as "Misspent Youth" and "Lowdown on the High Life." The former, written about five years ago, was about a friend killed in a car accident. "That was part of the subject, of it, but it was (also about) growing up and not having responsibility when you're a child and kind of missing all the things that you got to with your friends and the life you had when you're younger. It's never coming back again."

"Lowdown" focuses on his paternal grandfather from whom he learned music."We sat down to write a song that day and we tossed around a bunch of things, and lowdown on the highlife came out," says Otto of a writing session with Kris Bergsnes and Porter Howell. "The hook came out of conversation talking about my granddad. I grew up with my dad. The last years of my grandfather's life, he was a major alcoholic. He also wanted to be a musician. He drank himself to death. I just watched the line of music get passed on from generation to generation. Definitely lived that lifestyle pretty hard because of it."

Otto was born into a military family at Ft. Lewis in the Tacoma, Wash. area with his dad still a drill sergeant.

Otto's parents split, and he moved around from Tacoma to eastern Washington, Alabama for a few years where his mother moved and a good chunk of time with his maternal grandparents in North Dakota.

"I started singing when I was really young, probably four years old, singing on my own all the time."

Otto sang so much his grandparents bought him a record player with a microphone.

"That's what I wanted to do from the time I was a little kid," he says. "In second grade, I started playing violin. I was terrible, but I loved to beat on it and make all kinds of noise."

Otto enlisted in the navy for two years after high school and settled in eastern Washington hooking up with the Desert Fire Band, doing covers in the regional band while working odd jobs.

Otto gave it up for Nashville in 1998. "I figured I could do whatever I was doing in Washington, I could do the same thing in Tennessee and have the chance to pursue music fulltime. That's all I wanted and ever wanted was to play music for a living. Just go down and jump write in and see what happens."

"I moved down here without knowing a soul. I didn't really investigate anything. I didn't want to be discouraged. I sold every thing I owned and moved."Otto hit the songwriters' open microphone circuit. "I found competition that made me want to grow and get better," he says.

Otto hooked up with Scott Parker, who produced most of his debut. The two scraped together about $3,000 to cut six songs.

Mercury head Luke Lewis got his hands on the demo and after a showcase quickly signed Otto.

After a few stops and starts (like opening 20 dates on Shania Twain's North American tour last year without even having an album out), Otto is primed for the disc to come out.

"I'm just ready for it to happen," he says. "I'm tired of waiting around for a record that's been done so long. It's going to do what it's going to do. I feel I made the best record I could at the time. I'll make a better record next time. I'm proud of what I've done in the past. I'm striving to do better in the future."