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Published June 03 2012

Country singer with ties to North Dakota kicks off RibFest

When country singer James Otto plays RibFest here on Wednesday night, his concert will be something of a homecoming.

Though he now lives in Nashville, the Grammy-nominated musician spent almost 10 years living in North Dakota.

Otto, 38, grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Finley, N.D., and also in Fargo, where he spent his grade-school years.

And with such a close connection to the area, Otto is looking forward to coming back this week (especially going to Mexican Village, his favorite restaurant in town).

“I have a lot of good friends and family there,” Otto says of Fargo. “I like to wander around and see some of the old places where I lived – I get nostalgic about it, for sure.”

Now decades later, Otto recognizes that his time in North Dakota actually had a significant effect on the musician he is today.

When he stayed at his grandparents’ house in Finley, Otto recalls always hearing classic country on the radio, with songs by artists like Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson.

Being exposed to that genre, even if it wasn’t by choice (Otto says he preferred listening to more popular artists like Prince or Van Halen), eventually put him on the path to becoming a country artist.

“I ended up gravitating to country music because that’s what my roots were,” he says.

After moving to Washington from Fargo, Otto moved in 1997 to Nashville in hopes of supporting his musical career, immersing himself in songwriting clubs and honing his sound.

“Being in those songwriters’ clubs was the best schooling I ever got,” he says. “It was watching these guys that had the songwriting craft down – they were wordsmiths, they were people that could turn a phrase and make you think. That was what kind of set my path when I got to town.”

And though Otto classifies himself as a country singer, he admits his sound has been influenced by other genres as well, such as Memphis soul.

“I fell in love with the soul sound,” he says. “That definitely influences my music as well.”

Now touring in support of his most recent album, “Shake What God Gave Ya,” Otto hopes to contribute to the fun, party-like atmosphere that RibFest already has going.

“We want everyone to dance, to feel good,” he says of what fans can expect at his concert. “There’s a lot of good food at this event, and we want to be the entertainment for this good time. We’re bringing the party, for sure.”

And, like most other visitors to RibFest, Otto admits he’ll likely be found indulging in the ribs at some point as well.

“I love ribs, are you kidding me?” he says laughing. “Who doesn’t like ribs?”

The rest of the fest

After Otto’s revs up the show on Wednesday, RibFest continues three more days of good food and music.

Gates open daily at 11 a.m., with games and other entertainment events scheduled throughout.

Seven rib vendors will be cooking this year, including last year’s critics’ choice winner, Cowboy’s Barbeque & Rib Co., along with the people’s choice winner, Aussom Aussie’s BBQ.

Other concert headliners include Foghat at 9:15 p.m. on Thursday; Craig Morgan at 9 p.m. on Friday; and Warrant, known for its 1990 hit “Cherry Pie,” at 9:30 Saturday night.

Opening acts take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

All concerts are held in the Fargodome parking lot and are followed by a fireworks display.

If you go

What: James Otto at RibFest

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Fargodome parking lot

Info: Gate admission costs $5, which includes the concert. Parking costs $3. For more information, visit http://happyharrysribfest.com

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535