For his third album, Shake What God Gave Ya, James Otto knew exactly what he wanted.
“I set out to make a country soul record so I wrote in that direction,” the Nashville-based artist says. “As a professional songwriter I’ve written over a thousand songs and I can write in a lot of different directions. But country soul is personally where I want to be. It’s something that I’ve always really enjoyed doing and something that’s really natural for me.”
To fulfill his vision, Otto has balanced contemporary country hits like “Groovy Little Summer Song” with greasy tunes such as “Good Thing Gone Bad,” which he wrote in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on a guitar that once belonged to Otis Redding. The fabled instrument is now owned by Rick Hall, who founded FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals in 1960 and recorded numerous soul stars there, such as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. During one of Otto’s visits to the studio, he picked up that guitar and sure enough, the sultry song followed.
“It really set a soulful stage for that song to be written because the groove came out of that guitar,” Otto says. “I think a lot of writers will tell you, each guitar has different songs in it. Each one has its own soul and its own feel. And that guitar definitely had that groove in it that day.” Otto ultimately recorded the song as a duet with one of his musical heroes, country star Ronnie Milsap.
Meanwhile, one of the album’s few serious compositions, “Soldiers and Jesus,” emerged during a writing session with Chris Wallin, who had seen a statement that only soldiers and Jesus had died for their fellow man.
“I think it struck me because of my military background,” Otto says. “My dad was a drill sergeant for 23 years. My grandfather was in Korea and I was in the Navy myself. That statement in general was very true to me. It was something that I fully believed in my heart was a fact. And I’m someone who considers himself a Christian, so when we started talking about it, it was very impactful to me. It said something that my listeners – and country listeners – can definitely agree with. I think a lot of our audience are the people who do pay the cost of American society.”
Otto also believes in the Nashville tradition of co-writing, with a hand in composing 11 of the album’s 12 tracks. “The old statement that two heads are better than one, especially in this business, I think can be very true,” he says. “You’re most honest with the people you’re close with. I think that is definitely why I like to write with my friends as co-writers because we can really talk through a subject frankly and openly. What is really the heart of the matter? What is it you’re really driving at? I find that we usually best come to that through discussion. That’s the way I personally like to do it.”
A Washington native who moved to Nashville in 1998, Otto released and co-wrote the most-played country song of 2008, “Just Got Started Loving You.” His writing credits also include “In Color,” a vividly written Top Ten country hit for Jamey Johnson about a young man and a nostalgic grandfather shuffling through old black-and-white photos. Along with its Grammy nomination, “In Color” won song of the year awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association.
Yet on the opposite end of the musical spectrum, Otto’s new music is intended to be lighthearted and fun.
“I think we need a release sometimes and that’s what a lot of this record is meant to do. It’s meant to make you feel good and to make you shake what God gave you,” Otto concludes. “That’s what I’m out doing every single night, trying to make a living with these songs and my music. I’m shaking what he gave me. What I mean by that is the talent he gave me, and letting it all hang out.”