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It's a long way from Fort Lewis, Wash., to New York City's legendary Madison Square Garden. But James Otto's proud to have made the trip.
"That's the venue, when you come up in music," says James, who recently played the Garden as Shania Twain's hand-picked opening act. "They say you haven't made it until you've played there - and I'm not sure I've made it yet, but I did get to play Madison Square Garden!
"It's an amazing accomplishment at this point in my career. I'm hoping it's just the first of many."
The music those New Yorkers heard is so diverse that the man himself finds it hard to describe. "It's the James Otto rockin' country-soul revue!" says James, who first wooed fans with the romantic Top 40 ballad "Days of Our Lives." Now his new single, "Sunday Morning, Saturday Night," tips a hat to his rowdier side.
"I think this song shows who I really am," confesses James. "It's a little more rockin', yet also very country in that it has a little bit of every man and every woman who likes to get out and have a good time. It's a 'get out, wear it out and party as much as you can' song - and the next morning, pray for forgiveness for all the things you did the night before! That song speaks to me - it's funny, but also very true. I think a lot of people can identify with it."
After two years in the Navy, James paid his dues playing in every club he could find across the Northwest - and then took a leap of faith, selling everything he owned and moving to Nashville.
When he got there, he bonded with a group of writers and singers who call themselves the "Muzik Mafia," including James, his fellow hot newcomers Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson - and a recent addition to the "family," rap-rock superstar Kid Rock.
"Kid's been hanging out with the Muzik Mafia quite a bit," notes James. "In fact, he's now an official member. It's been really cool getting to know somebody like that, who's into outlaw country, rock and rap. That's definitely a part of me as well.
"All of us have listened to all kinds of different things growing up - Big & Rich are certainly in the same vein as me and Gretchen. All those guys are very much influenced by rock 'n' roll. Country-rock is what we do - soul music."
Even before his debut CD, Days of Our Lives, was released, James happily discovered he already had a very famous fan - superstar Shania, who asked him to do a 20-minute opening acoustic set on her tour last fall.
"It was awesome!" recalls James. "My favorite memory was probably talking with 'Mutt' Lange [Shania's husband/producer] and being able to pick that guy's brain. He was really kind to me and said a lot of great things about my writing and my voice. That was really cool, because he's produced a lot of the records I've loved through the years, like AC/DC and Def Leppard."
James watched Shania's concerts from the side of the stage almost every night, learning valuable lessons about showmanship. "Shania's an excellent performer," he says. "She puts on a show for everybody, every night. To entertain twenty thousand people in an arena like that - I'd never done it, so it was something I was definitely out there watching, seeing how she interacted with the crowd, what people reacted to and what they didn't. It was a learning experience, for sure."
-- Wendy Newcomer