Sam Outlaw: By Any Other Name

Photo by Joseph Llanas

In his engaging, expressive country-folk songs, Sam Outlaw has mastered the art of lyrical economy. In each of the 13 tracks on his gorgeous new album, Tenderheart, he uses just the words he needs to draw vivid pictures and expose deep emotions; there are no jammed-in syllables, no jigsaw-puzzle phrases.

Outlaw’s musical trajectory is remarkable, considering he’s been at it full-time for only a couple of years. He hadn’t even heard many of his major influences until after he’d graduated college and begun making a very good living selling advertising in Los Angeles. 

Outlaw (his late mother’s maiden name) was born Sam Morgan in South Dakota. His family moved to Ohio when he was 5, and to southern California five years later. Though he began writing as soon as he learned some guitar chords at 16, his conservative Christian parents limited his musical exposure. One exception was Asleep at the Wheel’s 1993 A Tribute To Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys — because his “jazz nerd” father had fallen in love with Ray Benson’s Western swing. It’s still a favorite. But Outlaw didn’t become obsessed with country until his 20s, when he discovered George Jones and Emmylou Harris on CMT while taking a sick day.

“I thought country music was simply the stuff I heard on the radio. Big pop ballads from Tim McGraw or, like, ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’” he admits. Then, within three years, he got married and divorced, his mother got sick and, after 30 years, his parents divorced.

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