October 10, 2008

Country Star Finds Success a Surprise

By Mark Jordan

James Otto will always remember where he was when he learned of his first Country Music Award nomination. And if he forgets, they can always just run tape.

The breakout country rock star was on stage at Nashville's Sommet Center last month, reading off the list of this year's CMA nominees live on Country Music Television. His co-presenters, from the trio Lady Antebellum - including Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood - came to the best new artist category. To the surprise of everyone on stage, the nominees included both Lady Antebellum and Otto.

"They got to announce themselves and me as well, so it was pretty cool," remembers Otto, shuttling between interviews in New York City.

The success that has surrounded Otto's sophomore CD, Sunset Man, has caught the 35-year-old off guard. His first record, 2004's Days Of Our Lives, recorded for Mercury Records, died in the lower depths of the country charts upon its release .

"The fact that everybody seems to like (Sunset Man) as much as they do is a pleasant surprise," Otto says. The album had already yielded the singer's first No. 1 song, "Just Got Started Lovin' You," before its release last spring.

Born and raised in Washington state, Otto might not have seemed a candidate for country music stardom.

His first musical instruments were the violin and saxophone, but when he turned 13, he got a guitar. At about the same time, he moved to Alabama for a few years and discovered country and Southern rock. Following high school and a stint in the Navy, Otto moved to Nashville to pursue vague dreams of stardom.

There he found musical companionship in a loose group of like- minded singer-songwriters whose material and outlook did not automatically endear them to the country music establishment. Otto was one of the founding members of what became known as the MuzikMafia, a collective whose members include Gretchen Wilson and "Big Kenny" Alphin and John Rich of the duo Big & Rich.

Built around a general willingness to experiment, the mafia became known for free-wheeling Tuesday shows at a now-defunct Nashville bar called the Pub of Luv.

"The idea behind it all was to give the artists power again," says Otto. "We were all stronger together than we were separate, and we banded together as friends and as musicians to try and open up the boundaries of what could be considered country music, what could be done in Music City ."

As various members of the mafia have hit the big time, the group's weekly get-togethers have fallen by the wayside. But the members still manage to convene occasionally in cities around the country. The most recent MuzikMafia gathering was in June at the New Daisy on Beale Street following Otto's performance before the Lynyrd Skynyrd/Hank Williams Jr. concert at FedExForum.

But the influence of the mafia is still strong on Otto's career. Mafia godfather Rich co-produced Sunset Man along with Rascal Flats bassist (and Otto's brother-in-law) Jay Demarks.

"What I was doing on stage in MuzikMafia really developed into country soul," says Otto, citing Al Green and Otis Redding as influences alongside Alabama and Hank, Jr. "I thought, 'This is who I am naturally. This is what's coming out without me putting any effort to be one thing or the other.'"



KIX 106 25th anniversary show featuring Alan Jackson, Trace Adkins and James Otto

7:30 p.m. Saturday at FedEx Forum.

Tickets are $49.50 and $65 at the FedExForum box office and through Ticketmaster.


Originally published by Mark Jordan Special to The Commercial Appeal .

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