Sam Outlaw, L.A.'s country boy, is on cusp of music stardom
As country music drinking songs go, bottomless mimosas at brunch doesn’t have quite the severity of, say, smashing a handle of bourbon to kill an all-consuming heartbreak.
But on Sam Outlaw’s new album, “Tenderheart,” the L.A. singer-songwriter takes an image of alfresco indulgence and wrings some profundity into that ever-refilling carafe.
“You might get low/ But you never will run out,” he sings, over a warm and gentle canyon-country arrangement. “You might not know/ But who’s really got it all figured out.” Then he quotes the Eagles — perhaps his closest sonic reference point — to ask, “If there’s meaning in the peaceful easy feeling/ It takes all the blues away.”
It’s day drinking with your buddies as a kind of L.A. serenity prayer.
“There’s something in the water here that makes you comfortable with combining genres. There’s an aesthetic to L.A. about the hills and the deserts and the freeways all being next to each other,” Outlaw says. “In Nashville, everyone knows what you’re working on or who is producing who or whoever you’re [sleeping with]. Here you can be more free.”
Right now, the country music establishment is split between competing camps. On one side, you have the likes of Florida Georgia Line, the bro-country duo who are opening a four-story mega-bar in downtown Nashville to showcase its own whiskey line.
On the other, the backlash to that sort of thing has elevated psychedelic oddballs like Sturgill Simpson or shaggy veterans like Chris Stapleton to the top of the Grammys.
Outlaw, who headlines the Troubadour on Thursday, is part of what may be a young third wave of artists — like the Jack White-championed Margo Price and the young ex-con Jaime Wyatt — who understand that country music at its most “authentic” is still an artifice (but to his credit, Outlaw really is his mom’s maiden name). One can write pretty, accessible songs with self-awareness about selling a “story” but also stay true and original.
“I love pop music, and I love three-minute rock songs,” Outlaw said. “My problem with ‘bro country’ isn’t that it isn’t hip enough, it’s that it [stinks]. What I do is fundamentally pop music.”
For Outlaw, that means drawing on the deep well of Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt and Eagles, L.A. acts who could write pristine, almost angelic tracks with raw need and dashed ego underneath.
His voice has echoes of Townes Van Zandt’s high rasp, and his writing has the concision and yearning of George Jones. But the inviting, magic-hour beauty of his playing makes it sound like his hometown.
“I grew up on the Eagles’ greatest hits, and I get so many emotions when I hear ‘Desperado.’ But those guys were all also about success,” Outlaw said.
That’s also part what makes him an L.A. act — he’s comfortable with commercial ambition and sincere about making emotionally affecting music.
Outlaw first turned ears on his Ry and Joachim Cooder-produced 2015 LP “Angeleno.” Players like Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and My Morning Jacket’s Bo Koster helped flesh out a contemporary update of that ’70s California country sound, with a heavy Mexican American influence.
It got him a gig at the Stagecoach Festival, but in the country business today, L.A.-reared acts still fight to be taken seriously. That might soon change though.
Koster and Goldsmith returned for “Tenderheart,” and given its intimate lyric material, the record covers a lot of sonic ground, from heartland rock to mariachi flourishes that give a sense of place to Outlaw’s introspection.
“Sam has an honest way of accessing a certain amount of tenderness or sentimentality that we don’t get to see much of anymore,” said Goldsmith, in an email. “His willingness to unaffectedly explore his own emotions and observations invites us to sit down at the table with him.”
“I feel like when you listen to Sam’s music, you automatically feel like you’ve known him for a long time,” Koster said. “Having guys like Joachim and Ry Cooder and Mariachi bands obviously make your records stand out from the Nashville scene and offer an alternative to that.”
“Tenderheart” is a domestic record but also a modern one in which big-city life is an equal part of one’s family. Yes, there’s a song about raising kids (the 34-year-old Outlaw is married with a young child), but “Dry in the Sun” isn’t too sentimental or sanctimonious about it. He gives equal attention to missing an old neighbor on the ballad “Bougainvillea, I Think” and a reliably devilish friend on the Mellencamp-style rocker “Trouble.”
He’s at his best when reconciling the darker, more selfish parts of his personality (like on the one-night-stand slow burner “Diamond Ring”) with a genuine desire to be a better man and accept love (like on the album’s title track).
“I have to check in on myself pretty regularly and calm myself down. In my 20s, I was really self-obsessed,” he said. “A song like ‘Tenderheart’ isn’t bull.”
Is all this enough to make Outlaw a new Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapleton? He certainly hopes so, eventually. But it’s a thorny question about humility and ambition.
Before pursuing music full time, he had a perfectly fine life working in L.A. advertising. Now, like so many people his age, he had to make a big mid-career shift. With it came a certain cynicism about music business fantasies, but also an earnestness about songwriting.
Now he’s at the cusp of a breakthrough.
“When you see those fellows go from relatively unknown to superstars, you think, ‘Hey, maybe I can win the lottery too.’ It is tempting to get envious, and I can’t pretend I’m not super-jealous,” Outlaw said. “But then, having a kid forces you to learn patience.”
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