An Angeleno Named Sam Outlaw

Sam Outlaw recently chatted with Pollstar about his debut album, working with Ry Cooder, and making a name for himself as a country singer/songwriter based in Los Angeles.

Outlaw didn’t grow up listening to a whole lot of country music but after a fateful bout of the flu and channel surfing led him to a countdown on CMT, he fell in love with artists like George Jones and Emmylou Harris. Outlaw began performing country music in 2009 but it wasn’t until another turning point, after his 30th birthday party a few years ago, that he decided to ditch his career in digital marketing/advertising and pursue music full time.

The singer/songwriter acknowledges there are folks out there that might judge him for performing under the name Outlaw – but he just sees them as fans he hasn’t won over yet. He’s up for the challenge. After all, this is a guy who’s forging his own path as a country singer in the City of Angels. Outlaw is his mother’s maiden name, in case you were wondering.

Fittingly, his debut album is titled Angeleno. Outlaw talked about how Southern California has inspired his music, including the influence of Mexican culture. The single “Who Do You Think You Are?” is one of two tunes on the LP to feature mariachis.

Angeleno, which is due out June 9 on Six Shooter Records, was produced by Ry and Joachim Cooder. The father and son also played on the album with Joachim on drums and Ry contributing electric and acoustic guitars, bajo sexton, banjo and harmony vocals. Additional guest musician include My Morning Jacket’s Bo Koster, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, Punch Brothers’ Gabe Witcher, and vocalist Arnold McCuller.  

We chatted with Outlaw in late April, the day before he played a showcase in New York. Earlier this year he supported Clint Black, Sheryl Crow and Justin Townes Earle, in addition to doing plenty of his own headline dates and appearing at SXSW.

Photo: Matt Wignall

You’re performing in New York tomorrow. So where am I calling you today?

I’m actually still at my home in Los Angeles. I just got back from Australia on Sunday. We did a tour opening for Justin Townes Earle, which was fantastic.  I’m still trying to kick the jetlag from that long flight home. I’m leaving early morning to do the show in New York.

I think tomorrow is the day that we’ll probably announce a whole bunch more tour dates.  

Your tour schedule is already pretty full.

Yeah, it’s going to be fun. I get to play some shows opening for Dwight Yoakam, some shows opening for Asleep At the Wheel, which is the one country band I actually grew up listening to, so I’m really pumped.

How long have you been touring?  

Really not hardly at all. So I’ve been playing as Sam Outlaw, doing country music since 2009. … I was making good money in my career so I threw one of those show-offy 30th birthday parties – rented out one of those hip bars, had an open bar for everybody and a DJ and live music, showing everyone how cool I was. And the next day I woke up just kind of feeling super empty and realizing that I had kept music at arms’ length because the truth is I have a giant ego and to fail at something you really care about would maybe be just too hard to handle or something. But I decided, I’d probably rather be a poor as a country singer than be rich selling advertising. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the money part, that’s fine. But I think if it’s not doing something you love after a while that catches up with you.

So I started putting some actual effort into music a couple years ago and things have really sped up a lot since. It was actually a year ago that I was on my honeymoon and I got a call that we were being added to the lineup for Stagecoach. So we played Stagecoach right around this time, and since then I’ve pretty much made my debut in Nashville and got a manager and a lawyer and now a booking agent. So really, everything’s kind of taken off in the last six to 12 months. Obviously making a record that’s produced by Ry Cooder definitely helps too because hopefully people take a look that otherwise might not give me a chance.

How many musicians are in the backing band you tour with?

I have an awesome band but it depends on the tour. Like on the tour in Australia with Justin Townes Earle playing solo, obviously they don’t want you plus some big band going up and like blowing everybody out of the water and then he comes out by himself. So in Australia it was just me solo.

When we opened the shows for Clint, he’s playing with a band but I think the directive was like it has to be pretty small – either me solo or as a duo. I actually got away with me plus two – so it was my harmony singer, Molly, and she plays guitar, we do different voicings on our acoustic so the guitar parts complement each other. And then my upright bass player Daniel, who also sings like a bird. So when I do it as a trio it’s really fun because we can really focus on dialing in the harmonies and it’s almost like a string band version. My normal band is a full band with a drummer, Darla, who sings; my bass player Daniel, who sings; my harmony singer Molly; pedal steel; another player who plays electric six-string so it’s usually a Telecaster; and then I’ve also played with a piano player before. So the full band is me plus four, five or even six sometimes.

That’s neat that depending on the gig, fans will get to see different versions of the live show.

Totally, totally. When I was in Australia … it [had] been a while since I’d played solo and to be honest, I write a lot of my songs with a band in mind because it’s almost like I think, “OK, here goes the pedal steel solo and this is where the Telecaster will come in and these are how the harmonies are going to be. … It was a special challenge to try to figure out kind of how to relearn my songs for a solo performance. And then opening for Clint Black and doing it as a trio, then it’s a whole new thing. It’s kind of like a new adventure depending on which band I take out. 

Photo: Joseph Llanes

Have you always performed under the name Sam Outlaw? I know that names can influence how you see yourself, so do you think of yourself as an outlaw of country music?

(laughs) Well, OK, so first question – yes, I’ve always played under the name Sam Outlaw. And, you know, first I think the thought was, this is my mother’s maiden name so it’s a family name, but maybe I’m just using it because it’s catchy and maybe hopefully someone will maybe remember me that otherwise wouldn’t. So it started at a really superficial level. And you know, since then it’s really developed into more. My mom is someone that’s always been incredibly supportive of my music, someone that means a lot to me. So a couple years ago, when she unfortunately passed away, I think using the Outlaw name became a way of honoring her and carrying on the family name a little bit.

It’s a special name to me, it means a lot to me.  I’ve known all along there’s people who are going to hear the name Sam Outlaw and just be like, “Oh cool, fake name, asshole” and just kind of write me off. And so, that’s fine. You’re always going to get those people but at the end of the day you always hope it’s your music that makes people either like you or decide they don’t like you. And I think I’ve had some good success and it’s funny, I’ll get tweets sometimes after shows, like we played recently in St. Paul, Minn., opening for this great band called The Cactus Blossoms and this guy tweeted something like, “Me and the guys have been kind of snarky about this LA country singer Sam Outlaw but we saw the show tonight and he’s actually really good.” So it made me, I’d almost rather have to win somebody over, you know what I mean, than have them right away.

And do I see myself as an outlaw? I don’t know. Trying to do country music from Los Angeles is definitely its own kind of uphill battle. There have been a lot of people in the last couple years, again, who have said, “Why don’t you just move to Nashville or at least move to Austin, Texas, or be somewhere where there’s a built in scene for it?” And you know, I’ve obviously thought about it, but the truth is, I always kind of say, I could move to Nashville but in LA, maybe I’m just a dork in a cowboy hat, but if I move to Nashville, I’ll be just another dork in a cowboy hat. And I think I kind of enjoy the challenge a little bit so if you want to say that’s something against the grain about me, maybe it’s just that I’ve kind of stayed my ground in LA and I’ve been trying to build this thing from Southern California and my songs have been shaped because of the place I live in.

Listening to your music you can hear that influence so it makes sense that you’d stay here, where you’ve obviously been inspired.

Yeah, it’s an inspiring place, and to get to work with Ry Cooder, who’s obviously an iconic Los Angeles guy [and] all the players, everyone in the band is from LA. We’ve got Bo, who lives out here, just like a mile away from me. Bo from My Morning Jacket. Taylor Goldsmith [from Dawes] is a neighbor of mine and a buddy, he’s an LA dude. Gabe from Punch Brothers, lives in Los Feliz. My steel player lives in Huntington Beach. So it’s a Southern California band. And then Ry Cooder also very wisely brought in mariachis for a couple of the songs. So while there are some other folks doing more traditional country music now … I don’t think any of them, at least as far as I know, have mariachis on their record. There’s something about this record that I wanted to be to distinctly Southern California flavor and I think making the record out here with California people was a big step towards that.

What about LA inspires you?

Well, there’s a special sadness to Los Angeles. … First of all, you have so many people coming out here to be famous to become somebody — so you see dreams being lost all that time. But also, there’s the great struggle. You also have the sense, I think, if you’ve lived here for a while, of what LA used to be. I think you can kind of sense the ghost of old Los Angeles and perhaps maybe the glory days of the ‘20s and ‘30s. And everyone, you can kind of sense while that’s not here anymore, the specialness of LA does live on. There’s always going to be that kind of excitement about being here and then obviously Mexican culture is a pervasive, steady part of being in Los Angeles. Obviously this used to be Mexico. So that culture, that music, that art, the fashion, all the things about Mexican culture is obviously influencing anyone who used to live here, whether it’s music you’re making or films you’re making or whatever. So I feel very lucky to live in a place that actually has a diverse population with a whole bunch of different styles and vibes and all those things go into the things you create.

You said Asleep At The Wheel was a big act for you growing up. What are some of the other artists that you grew up listening to?

Sure. Well. First of all, I try to be clear with people – a few things.  Like, Outlaw is my mother’s maiden name. I always try to make sure that people know that I’m not trying to play off that’s my given name necessarily. And I also try to be very clear with people, I don’t really have any country roots. Although I was born in South Dakota and raised in the Midwest until I was 10, it’s not like I grew up on a farm or a ranch, driving a pickup truck. I try to be very clear with people, I’m not trying to play myself off as some cowboy. Do I wear a hat? Yes. But the truth is, there was always one real band that I grew up listening to and that’s Asleep At The Wheel. I think that band helped set the soil for me discovering country music later. The simple story is I was sitting at home from work, after college, I was really sick with the flu or something, I was channel surfing and I stumbled on CMT doing like “Top 100 Country Singers of All Time” or some kind of countdown list. And that was the first time I heard George Jones and Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris so I think Asleep At The Wheel really set the soil for that. And then when I heard George Jones, I mean, I like completely flipped out. It was the best thing I’d ever heard in my life. I went out and bought some of his music. I bought Emmylou Harris’ first album, Pieces Of The Sky. And you know, on Pieces Of The Sky, you have songs written … by the Louvin Brothers so that kind of takes you down that whole rabbit hole.

But other than that, the music that turned me on to just music in general growing up is I think what it was for a lot of people. It was The Beatles, The Beach Boys, I remember being really fascinated by Frank Sinatra when I was 16 years old and his amazing baritone style singing and his laidback style, which is actually very similar to some country singers. The Everly Brothers … kind of just getting obsessed with close harmony singing and certainly when I discovered The Louvin Brothers later, that rang a lot of bells. So I think it was for me what it was for a lot of people – you don’t need to grow up on country music to then hear country music and have it really resonate with you.

Rolling Stone ran a feature on you in which the magazine commented that you’ve been leading the rebirth of Los Angeles’ modern country scene. How do you think the scene has been evolving?

Well, it’s funny, like I remember when I first started wearing a Western hat, again in 2009. I probably looked like an insane person. There wasn’t a lot of country music, there wasn’t a lot of country style. I’ve definitely seen — and again, I’m not trying to say like I’m such a tastemaker, that because of me you see people with Stetsons in Los Angeles now — but I’d say over the last couple years, especially, there’s been a lot of bands that have been springing up that have fiddle and have banjo and have pedal steel and are incorporating these type of root styles in their music. So I think it’s been an exciting thing, it’s been happening not just in LA but south of here, in Orange County. There’s a great country singer in San Diego named Graham Nancarrow, he’s making kind of traditionally based country music out of San Diego. So it’s been kind of sweeping the region.

I try to tell people, “Look, as much as I obviously care if people know who I am and know the Sam Outlaw name and listen to my music, that’s important, sure, but it’s almost maybe more important to me that if [in] any way I can remind people that country music is awesome and country music used to have a flourishing life in Southern California and then maybe help them to discover some of that music, then that would be really special to me.

Photo: Casey Currey

What was it like working with Ry Cooder and how did that come to be?

So I actually hired his son Joachim to play drums on my record. Back last summer when I was trying to figure out a producer and trying to put a plan together I kind of had the thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just produce it myself and I’ll get my different friends in LA like Taylor and Bo.”  We can do this ourselves and get most of the way there. I called Joachim and asked him if he’d please play drums and he said yes. And then when we were rehearsing at my house I happened to be recording the rehearsal on my iphone — I just hit record and set it on the fireplace mantel. A few days later [Joachim] called me up and he’s like, “Are you still looking for a producer?” And I’m like, “Yeah, man. Do you have some thoughts?” And he was like, “Well, you know, if you’ve got those demos, I’d like to actually maybe send those over to Ry.” He doesn’t say Dad; he says Ry.

And I was like, “Yeah, man. Of course. But why would you do that? Ry doesn’t really take on new music projects.” And he was like, “Well, I don’t know. Send them over and let’s see what happens.” So, long story short, I send him these crappy demos. I think Joachim wisely parceled out maybe a few highlighted tunes that he thought would catch Ry’s fancy. And sure enough, a few days later he calls me up and he’s like, “Hey, man.  Ry wants to get breakfast. He wants to talk.” And I was like, “Holy shit.” So we went to breakfast and we just hit it off. I mean, Ry Cooder is a huge country music fan, he’s like an encyclopedia of knowledge about the history of country music, the history of music in general. So we kind of just hit it off on that level. And then I get back to my computer after breakfast and I have an email from Ry, I think I actually had several emails from him, but he sends me an email saying, “I see you’re playing a show at The Echo next week, would it be OK if I sat in with the band? I’d like to get more familiar with your tunes.” And I was thinking, “Uh, yeah, that’s OK. (laughs) I email him back and I’m like, “Sure, man. We got a rehearsal coming up; feel free to come.” So the next thing I know, I’ve got Ry Cooder sitting on a chair in my living room playing a Stratocaster and rehearsing with my band in LA and it was just the craziest thing. So we actually got to play a few shows together before going in to track the record and I think there were just a lot of good vibes and just a lot of excitement even before we started recording in the studio. And he trusted me to bring in Bo Koster from My Morning Jacket when we needed a Worlitzer player for the bass tracking. He said, we can basically use your band — your bass player Danny is great, your steel player is great. Let’s do this. So honestly, it was almost too easy. We got in, we tracked really 80, 90 percent of what you hear on the record, we did in the first three days just all together in the room playing. And it was one of the most special and exciting experiences of my whole life.

Do you have any favorite tracks you’d like to mention from the new album?

We released the first single today, which is track one on the record, called “Who Do You Think You Are?” I’m really proud of it because although it’s just kind of a simple pop country song, it’s got mariachis. It was so cool to watch Ry Cooder kind of direct and help arrange the strings and the horns on the record. It’s got Ry Cooder obviously playing on it. I think it sets the tone for the record. It kind of captures that Southern Californian thing really well.

The title [track] of the record, I’m really proud of. It’s the second track with [mariachis]; there are two tracks on the record that have mariachis. “Angeleno” is kind of a love story of a couple trying to make it in LA. And it’s something that meant a lot to me because it took me a while to write it. It was almost like the writing of that song corresponded with the vision for the album coming together. So as that song would start to realize and come into focus more, my plans for the whole album would kind of be tracking at the same time. So I’m really proud of that one.

There’s a song called “Jesus Take The Wheel And Drive Me To A Bar,” which always makes people laugh when we play the song live. It’s fun for me because one of the great things about country music is if you have a sense of humor, it can really count for something. So it’s a fun song and I’m glad I got to do some good, just straight ahead honky-tonk songs on the album. Those are three that I’m really, really proud of.

And then there’s a song called “Ghost Town,” which is really about kind of the disillusion of my family and unfortunately when my mom passed away, it was actually the first song that I wrote after the funeral. And it’s kind of about that experience of going home and home not feeling like home anymore. So “Ghost Town” is one that’s although a sad story, it’s one that I’m really proud of.

“Ghost Town” must be very special to you.

It means a lot to me. [When] you go through something like that, part of the way that you can deal with it and kind of move beyond it is turning it into a song. 

Was there anything else you’d like to tell readers either about the album or why someone should come out to a show?

Like Ry Cooder’s career, there’s a lot of variety in this record. I think that if you’re a fan of traditional country music there’s a lot here for fans of traditional country to kind of sink their teeth into. But I’d also say, you know, the album itself is varied. I use the term Southern California country to describe my sound because although there’s honky tonk music here, there’s also a lot of other influences like the great singer/songwriters of the troubadour days – James Taylor; Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Gram Parsons; The Bryds. That sort of Southern California singer/songwriter stuff is also a big influence on me and I think you can hear that in the album.

And then when people come see me live I try to give them a country show. People ask me, “Where do you even play in LA? Are there honky tonks and salons and dance halls anymore in Los Angeles?” And I always tell them, “Look, when I play a show, I try to turn that bar into a honky tonk for the night.” Maybe it’s a fantasy but it’s a fun fantasy and I try to bring other people into that fantasy. I want the experience to be fun, I want them to get a little bit of everything. We’re going to do the sad waltzes, we’re going to do the upbeat barn burning tunes, we’re going to do the kind of So-Cal mariachi stuff as well.

I guess I want people to know that if you’re a fan of country music this is for you, but one of the best compliments I get when I play shows is when somebody comes up and says, “Hey man, I thought I hated country music, and maybe I do, but I really like your songs.” So maybe it’s for people who hate country music too.

Photo: Matt Wignall

Upcoming dates for Sam Outlaw:

May 8 – San Diego, Calif., Observatory North Park (with Dwight Yoakam)            
May 17 – San Francisco, Calif., Slim’s (with Asleep At The Wheel)  
May 18 – Napa, Calif., City Winery Napa     
May 20 – Birmingham, Ala., The Nick
May 21 – Decatur, Ga., Eddie’s Attic
May 22 – Nashville, Tenn., The Basement     
May 23 – Knoxville, Tenn., Tennessee Theatre (with Sheryl Crow)  

May 24 – Asheville, N.C., The Grey Eagle    
May 26 – West Hollywood, Calif., Troubadour (with Aaron Watson)
May 28 – San Diego, Calif., House Of Blues (with Aaron Watson)   
June 5 – Huntington Beach, Calif., Don the Beachcomber   
June 9 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern (with Graham Nancarrow)
June 10 – Los Angeles, Calif., Silverlake Lounge (with Austin McCutchen)  
June 12 – Sutter Creek, Calif., Sutter Creek Provisions         

June 14 – Calpine, Calif., Sierra Valley Lodge
June 16 – San Francisco, Calif., Hotel Utah
June 21 – Seattle, Wash., Tractor Tavern      
June 22 – Portland, Ore., Doug Fir Lounge

July 1 – Costa Mesa, Calif., The Wayfarer (with Cale Tyson, Moonsville Collective)
July 7 – Boise, Idaho, Knitting Factory Concert House (appearing with Dawes)     
July 9 – Calgary, Alberta, Republik Nightclub (appearing with Dawes)       
July 10 – Edmonton, Alberta, The Starlite Room (appearing with Dawes)   
July 17 – Fargo, N.D., Fargo Theatre (appearing with Dawes)

July 20 – Toronto, Ontario, The Phoenix Concert Theatre (appearing with Dawes)
July 21 – South Burlington, Vt., Higher Ground (appearing with Dawes)

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