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.
“If you fall in love with country, and then you have some serious shit happen to you for the first time in your precious little life, that really fuckin’ affects the kind of music you’re writing,” Outlaw says. Still, he had no plans to switch careers; living in Long Beach and hanging with Cold War Kids, Delta Spirit and other music-making friends, “I could observe that even if I was to be successful, I’m still gonna probably be basically poor. I’m gonna be gone all the time … I think I’m good doing this as a hobby.”
That changed when he turned 30 and threw himself “a big, showoff party” to revel in his success.
The next morning, through his hangover haze, he realized he didn’t care about any of it. What he did care about was music. So he asked a friend to help him make a record, much of which was redone for his Six Shooter Records debut, Angeleno. In 2014, he recorded an EP, and an adorable video featuring kids pantomiming a country band singing “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink (And Fall In Love).” The Bluegrass Situation’s Amy Reitnouer premiered the video and tipped off Michelle Aquilato at the Americana Music Association. That spring, Outlaw’s harmony vocalist, Molly Jenson, got them booked on Music City Roots. Aquilato heard his expressive baritone and pretty melodies and took him under her wing, telling him he needed to make a serious album.
His Nashville experience was another revelation. Unlike movie-centric L.A., he says, people in Music City had actually heard of Ray Benson — and could even name pedal steel players. His L.A. friends, of course, were exceptions. He called on Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and drummer Joachim Cooder to help with the album. Cooder asked if he could send the demos to his dad, Ry, who signed on as producer, capturing a sound Outlaw calls “SoCal country.”
Though he’d rather not have to define it, he says it refers to “a spirit and a vibe,” suggesting movies, beaches, hills and valleys, the Valley, San Diego, and Mexico. Yes, he says, it draws influences from “the Laurel Canyon thing, like Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Eagles,” adding, “I’m not making Hank Williams, straight-ahead, woe-is-me honky-tonk, although that vibe is in there.”
While making Tenderheart, which he co-produced with Martin Pradler, Outlaw listened to classic country — and Don Henley, Tom Petty and “Bryan Adams with a B.” Noting Dwight Yoakam’s music is considered “L.A. country,” Outlaw points out it initially had more in common with early Sun Records artists than Hank Williams.
“Now what the fuck does L.A. country these days, or even back then, really have to do with his sound? Not much,” Outlaw insists. “I don’t exactly know what I’m doing … I know that I like a whole bunch of different stuff, and I get bored quickly. So as much as my bread-and-butter, favorite music in the world is the classic pop-country from the ’50s and ’60s, and I could listen to George Jones all day, no self-respecting artist actually just listens to one kind of music on and on forever till they die.”
One of his favorite books is titled Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity; its premise, he says, is that “authentic country” is more a construct than a truth.
“We say SoCal country,” he explains, “because then I can really make whatever music I want.”
If it’s as good as what he’s done so far, he can call it whatever he wants.