James Otto has become considerably more accustomed to attending the Academy of Country Music Awards than the ACM has to having him there.
During the past four years, as the linebacker-size songsmith sought a second chance for a recording career that stalled in 2004, Otto was among the country faithful who attended the awards ceremony in hopes that it might someday honor his music.
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In some ways, the ACM event a few weeks ago in Las Vegas was no different. Otto's album Sunset Man was only a month old, so he wasn't eligible for any trophies. But Otto did have something no other artist in attendance could claim: the current No. 1 country single.
That's right. The name on the top of the charts that week with the soul-spiced hit Just Got Started Lovin' You wasn't Chesney. It wasn't Paisley. It wasn't Toby.
It was Otto.
”This year, instead of everybody at the ACMs asking me if I was a wrestler or a football player, I got a bit of a different reception,“ Otto said. ”Having a No. 1, it turns out, didn't hurt at all.“
A co-founding member of MuzikMafia, the renegade team of singers and writers who gave rise to such independently minded major label artists such Big and Rich and Gretchen Wilson, Otto took a stab at a recording career in 2002. He released a series of singles for the Mercury Nashville label that resulted in a 2004 debut album called Days of Our Lives. None of the records charted well. So back Otto went back to his compadres at MuzikMafia.
”When MuzikMafia started, I was the only one with a record deal,“ Otto said. ”Everybody else lost their contracts and were already going through what I was about to go through. Then when Big and Rich and Gretchen blew up, they stuck me on their stages and put me in front of all these people in order to keep eyes on me. That's what MusikMafia has always been about. It's about working for your brother and trying to help them whenever you can. So even though my record deal didn't work out the first time, they were going to make sure I at least got the attention to try and get another one.“
Soon came a new contract with Warner Bros. and Sunset Man, an album Otto co-produced with two pals: Big and Rich's John Rich and Rascal Flatts' Jay DeMarcus. The latter is the singer's brother-in-law.
”I got to work with both of my families for this album,“ Otto said.
While Sunset Man's April release had been carefully plotted, the success of Just Got Started Lovin' You was something of a runaway train with a lot of tracks in front of it. As the first single of Otto's second coming as a recording artist, it took a full 30 weeks to reach No. 1.
Needless to say, audiences were afforded plenty of time to get familiar with Otto's sound. Lexington crowds became especially well-versed as Otto played Heritage Hall last New Year's Eve with Jason Aldean and at Austin City Saloon for a show of his own in late January.
”It's been a slow climb,“ Otto said. ”But that's just fine with us. It's given time for the single to sink in a bit. I'm just surprised it's had the gas to last this long.“
For Otto's third Lexington outing in five months, and his first as a certified hit maker, he will open a Southern rock hoedown Friday night at Rupp Arena featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd and the artist who has served as a key inspiration: Hank Williams Jr.
”The reason I started playing country music was Hank Jr.,“ Otto said. ”He was the guy who made country cool enough when I was 13 to go, "Man, that is what I want to do.'“