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Dave Roepke, Published January 28 2009

Otto says North Dakota years, family influence aided career

His official biography merely mentions that James Otto lived in North Dakota as a child.

Otto, a country singer making the most out of his second chance at stardom, is far more generous to the Peace Garden state, crediting his childhood here as key to his eventual career.

“I really think it was the genesis of all of it,” says Otto, the brawny voice on the No. 1 song on Billboard’s 2008 year-end Hot Country Songs chart, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You.”

He first started singing when he was a toddler on his grandparents’ 700-acre farm outside of Finley, N.D. He first began playing guitar, violin and saxophone as a kid growing up in Valley City and Fargo. And it was when he was a student at Hawthorne Elementary that he sang in the Red River Boy Choir, the experience that he says first made him think seriously about a music career.

Otto returns to the area this week for the first time since a 2002 gig at the Fargodome. He plays today in Grand Forks and Thursday in Hankinson, N.D.

In an interview last week, he talked about his childhood, being dropped after his first album, “Days of Our Lives,” flopped in 2004 and “Sunset Man,” the 2008 CD that has sent him back up the Nashville ladder.

Forum: So what do you remember about living here?

Otto: I spent most of my winters sledding on East Dike, like everybody, inner tubing down the dike. (I spent) a lot of time at the Y right there. I rode my bike pretty much everywhere. In those early years of grade school, I could ride my bike from almost Moorhead’s border out to West Fargo, out to West Acres. I remember kind of having the run of the place as a kid.

You were really drawn to music early. Did that come from knowing your dad and grandfather were in bar bands?

Absolutely. That had a huge influence on me. I knew my dad was a player, and I knew my grandfather was a player. I think some of those things are in the blood. I think you inherit some talents, and you have to develop the rest of them. ... I’m sure I idolized my dad like all kids do. Some of that stuff probably was I wanted to be like my dad. But I also think it’s just in you at some level. You have an innate ability and a God-given raw talent to be developed when your parents do it. It’s something that gets passed on.

With “Sunset Man,” what kind of album were you trying to make?

I was still trying to figure out how to define myself best at that point. I’d made a record that I thought was really me, and it didn’t do like I wanted it to do. When things like that happen, you tend to re-examine who you are and what you’re doing and try to figure out how to do better the next time. What I wanted to do and what I’ve always wanted to do was country soul. I found myself that way. I found an identity that way. It was something I could really dig into.

It was much more traditional and bedroom-y than I was expecting.

Totally. It’s definitely bedroom-y. I actually joke we’re going to call the next record “Bedroom Music” or something like that. The sexy thing I don’t mind. I’d like to be country music’s Al Green.

Are you writing yet for your next album?

Oh yeah, we’re almost done. We start recording at the end of February. ... It’ll probably be out sometime this year, if not fall certainly by Christmas.

Between “Days of Our Lives” and “Sunset Man” did you get to the point where you were questioning your abilities?

The place I eventually went – you go through a bunch of different emotions during that period – was timing. It wasn’t my time to do this. And if this isn’t my time, I have time right now to figure it out. That’s the emotion I tried to pour my energies into. The feeling sorry for yourself or too much of “Am I supposed to be doing this?” really isn’t healthy. I really tried to stay away from that. ... If you ask friends that were around me, they might say I went though it more than I thought I did. But I really tried to invest my energies in moving forward. ... To answer your question, yeah, it can give you doubts about your direction and what you’re wanting to do. But I don’t think I ever doubted whether I should be doing this or not. I think I more doubted or pondered, “Am I making the right music?”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535