Rising Country Star Sam Outlaw Doesn't Give A Damn If You Think He's Authentic.
Just six months before he stole the show at the CMAs and became the talk of country of music thanks, in part, to his duet with Justin Timberlake, Chris Stapleton was just another struggling musician, playing the tiny City Tavern in Downtown Dallas this past April.
And, y'know, we don't remember that show necessarily selling out.
Similarly, Sturgil Simpson too found himself playing two sold-out club shows at Dada right as his own massive ascent was just beginning. That'll probably be the last time anyone around here catches him in a room that doesn't hold at least a few thousand people.
As you might guess, there are tons of people that caught onto those bandwagons just a second too late, and have since kicked themselves for missing out on those undeniably special, once-in-a-lifetime type opportunities to catch musicians at just that perfect spot of their ascension into the major leagues.
If we had to guess, we'd say another of those special shows will happen next Tuesday, out on the back patio of the Twilite Lounge in Deep Ellum. Potential cold temperatures be damned, you won't want to miss SoCal country boy Sam Outlaw's first-ever Dallas show — and likely his last in such a unique an intimate setting. It'll be a real treat.
After spending a decade as an ad salesman, and only really seriously dabbling in music for the past couple, Outlaw — it's his mother's maiden name, for real — released his debut full-length, Angeleno, earlier this year. The stand-out effort was produced by Ry Cooder and features the eclectic Californian lending his legendary guitar prowess to most tracks. Other players on the album include Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and Gabe Witcher (Punch Brothers), meaning that the crisp and tasteful instrumentation on that thing is noticeably impeccable.
Since that release, Outlaw's quit his job — about seven months ago, in fact — and racked up all kinds of positive press, including some especially kind words from Rolling Stone, which not only called Angeleno one of the great unheard country records of the year but added that “Outlaw knows he didn't grow up roping herds, but he proves on songs like 'Angeleno' that there's a little bit of a restless cowboy in even the most die-hard city slickers.”
Of course, as RS points out, that battle with being perceived as a city-slicking outsider seems to be the bright young star's only real hurdle. It's something we recently had a chance to ask Outlaw about directly as we caught up with him in advance of next week's Dallas date. Fortunately, things like so-called authenticity and the unnecessary debate on whether or not country needs “saving” are not things with which he really concerns himself.
This is going to be your first time in Dallas, is that right?
Yeah, man, it's going to be my first show there. I've really not played Texas at all. We played a whole bunch of shows at South by Southwest but, obviously, that doesn't really count. So, this will, amazingly, be my first time getting to really play out in Texas — which just seems crazy because I love Texas. Obviously, it's not a half-bad place to be playing country music. But, yeah, this will be my first time playing there, and I've got a really good band with me. I'm taking the band that I had in Australia, which is basically Robert Ellis' band. So I'll have a band full of Texans, as well as my usual harmony singer, Molly [Jenson]. It'll be a nice fun night.
Well, you haven't been doing the music thing full-time for all that long, so I suppose it makes some sense that you wouldn't have necessarily played here yet.
I had a full-time job up until the middle of March. That's when we kind of started hitting the road full-time. This week has been my first rec week. We just got back to Southern California. We've had all our stuff in storage for the last six months. We found a new apartment, and my wife and I are finally starting to feel almost like normal people again. I've got basically a whole week to be home to move into my new place, and then I'll be out again. So it's been kind of crazy. But still, Texas, to me, is just so important. I'm just pumped that we're finally getting to go play some good shows there.
Ah, so you were working full-time until this March. I was under the impression that it had been a couple of years.
Yeah, exactly. I was working full-time until the spring of this year. A lot has happened in not even half-a-year's time. I kind of started, I guess, putting more effort into the music thing a couple years ago. Things started taking off — the spring of 2014 was the first time I really played in Nashville. That made a huge difference. I'm thankful for that Nashville trip and how things have picked up significantly since then, and given me a chance to play music with most of my time.
And before that you were working in ad sales?
Yeah, that's right.
That's interesting. Once upon a time, I got to interview one of the members of Justice, and he talked about how his previous career in graphic design had a huge impact that later helped him out in his music career. Have you been able to apply principles you picked up from the ad world to your own music career?
Yeah, a ton of stuff to be honest. I mean, if anybody's worked any kind of full-time job — where you're required to perform at a certain level, show up places on time, and be a professional, and keep an organized schedule and work — really any job kind of prepares you, in a sense, for music. One unique thing about sales that I've been able to take with me is not letting constant rejection get you down. No matter how good things go, for every great thing that I get or cool show that I get or good thing that happens, there's probably a dozen things that I didn't get or that didn't happen. So instead of really focusing on that stuff and being perpetually in a state of woe-is-me, I think sales is kind of good at helping you to learn you're going to have successes and there's going to be not successes. And learning how to keep yourself focused even when you feel like things maybe aren't going your way, and staying consistent. If you consistently put out good work, and if you're consistently doing your job well, I feel like eventually that does payoff. I definitely got to see that firsthand selling advertising for 10 years.
So when you're in California, and just kind of starting to come up in this world, what types of places are you having to play? I don't imagine there are too many honky-tonks out there.
No, it's not the '40s or '50s or '60s anymore. A lot of times the places you play in Los Angeles are just clubs. There are places for country music in L.A., like there's this thing called The Grand Ole Echo, where they have a free roots music/country music/Americana show every Sunday at The Echo in Echo Park. That runs April through September. When you have those shows, those are obviously kind of more country focused. There's Honkytonk Hacienda, which is every Thursday night at El Cid, which is a club in Silver Lake. And then you have these scattered-about country bills. But, for the most part, I play the same places everyone else has played — The Satellite, which used to be called Spaceland; Silver Lake Lounge, Bootleg Theater. We'll make up shows, like for my CD release show we played at Monty Bar, which is just my favorite bar in Downtown L.A. It's not even setup for music, we just had live music there. You kind of just make it up as you go. If you want to do country in Los Angeles, you have to get used to the fact that a lot of the shows and bills you're going to be on are not going to be straight ahead country shows. You'll have indie pop bands on the bill, there's folk people on the bill. A lot of times they just try to package anybody with an acoustic guitar, because in those people's minds that's country music since they're not on stage slamming away on keyboards. It's all over the place, man, and I think that's been kind of cool, in the same way that Dwight Yoakam would play with punk bands and rockabilly bands and stuff. I've had to learn how to be able to play for non-country audiences, which is interesting.
I was actually just about to bring up Dwight Yoakam, I recently read a thing where he talked about having to play with a lot of punk bands when he was first starting out in California, and it was really interesting. You can really hear that influence in his music, too.
Dwight's pretty hard-edged and loud, so I think he was well-suited for that kind of stuff.
Does playing with a lot of non-country bands help at all turn on fans that, perhaps, don't listen to that kind of music all the time and, maybe, broaden your audience a bit further than the typical country fan?
I don't know that I'm making music for anybody. I listen to non-country music all the time. I listen to a lot R&B. I listen to a lot of soul music. I listen to a lot of '70s singer-songwriter stuff. So I think, yeah, presenting the lighter side of country music is just because that's where my tastes are. I like mellow stuff. I like soft rock a lot. A lot of the tunes that we do, we've got the kind of standard honky-tonk shuffles and songs about drinking, or whatever, but a lot of the stuff is just soft rock with a pedal steel. That's my favorite thing. That's kind of my vibe. We try to present that simply because that's where my tastes are. And if there's an audience for it, then great. Luckily there have been some people wanting to hear this stuff.
From what I've read you became a country music fan later on in life.
Yeah, that's true.
That fact, paired with the fact that you're from L.A., do you find yourself frequently battling the notion that you're not authentic or you're not making quote-unquote real country music?
I've got two things that I feel like are red flags for people at first glance. Obviously, using the name Outlaw, right away, bothers some people. It's usually other musicians that it bothers. I've found that most “normal” people are just citizens out there looking to hear music. That doesn't bother them — especially when they find out that it's my mother's maiden name, and it's a family name. Then it's kind of like, “Oh, cool, he's just using a stage name. Big deal. It's part of his history.” And then, obviously, being from Los Angeles can be a big detraction for some people. It's like, “What do you mean?!” You might as well be from New York City or something. At the end of the day, I've come across so many people, radio DJs, fans, other musicians that [tell me], “Hey man, I was kind of talking shit about some Outlaw guy from Los Angeles, but then I really loved your set. So, thank you. I'm sorry that I was being a dick before.” I always laugh at that stuff because, again, I tell people, “I get it. I totally understand.” I think that with the last name Outlaw and being from L.A., it invites a certain criticism it wouldn't if I was blah, blah, blah, the normal things, from Texas, or raised in Kentucky, and my last name was Jebediah or something. If you have some kind of old-timey thing, and you've got the right root city to go with it, everybody's going to be falling all over themselves because of the authenticity. People still have to get up on stage and deliver good music. You can have the right name and right hometown, but if you're music sucks then, ultimately, I don't think that shit's going to pan out. So, all I ever ask of people is, you can talk shit about me all day long — and feel free to do it — but please come to a show. And if you still don't like it, I would encourage you to continue talking as much shit as you want. But if you do like it, just admit that you like it. All I ever ask is that people come to the shows. For me, there have been times when I didn't know what to expect from something, or was skeptical or, let's just say, flat-out not wanting to like something. If the music is there, and the music is good, I'm pumped. I'm thankful I got to hear something that in my own mind I thought I wasn't going to like. That's happened to me so many times that that's what I ask of people — just check out the music.
It's like, for all the people throwing around the word “authenticity” so often, or for all the think pieces you read about whether country music “needs saving,” what does any of that stuff even mean?
I don't know! What's more authentic than a guy falling in love with something and then trying to do his best at writing it? All these songs that I've written, I've written from true emotions. I think, an inauthentic song is if you weren't really sad, maybe, and then wrote a song about being sad. I don't know. For me, I think authenticity is simply in the song. It's not in the background of the songwriter. It's also funny, we'll offend someone — we'll be playing a Bob Wills song and some old-timer will come up, “Bob Wills?! How do you even know about Bob Wills? His music was two generations before you were born.” I just want to be like, “Really? Because of media.” There's a reason we have radio waves and TV signals and the Internet. I think regionalism, although it's still, in its own way, relevant to the type of music you're making, you no longer have to be a black kid from the Delta to sing blues. I still think, though, this notion of arguing about what is authentic, this is for editorializing. When I go visit Nashville, I have a handful of great friends down there making, what I consider, good country music. I probably don't know where half of them are from, because I just don't think about it. No one in Nashville is from Nashville. It's just all these people running around with cowboy hats on trying to make a living at something that's, in some ways, a dying style of music. I never walk into a set and go, “Well, this better be authentic.” I just think, “I hope it's good.” And then if it's good, it's good. Again, I think the authenticity battle, somebody else can have that, and I'll just lose. I'll continue to try and make good songs. I'm not talented enough that I can think about anything else other than songwriting. I don't really have the time or ability to think about the authentic thing too much.
I've kind of gone out of my way to not play up country roots, or try to make out like I'm more country or ranch-y or some shit than I actually am. I grew up listening to one country band, and that's Asleep at the Wheel. In my early 20s I stumbled upon George Jones and Emmylou Harris, and that changed my life. I went out and bought all that music and it's what I've been listening to ever since. I fell in love with the pedal steel. I fell in love with shuffles in country music, and songs about whiskey and all that great stuff. If the fact that I grew up in Southern California is an issue for people that's fine, and I get that. But for a lot of people, that actually makes it more interesting, too. So it actually goes both ways.
It's not like you try to hide that at all. I mean, your record is called Angeleno for chrissakes.
Right. I'm not hiding anything I'm doing. I'm doing everything I can to try and make something distinct known about myself, which is the fact that I'm doing this from Southern California. I've gone back and forth on the value of the Outlaw moniker but, truthfully, it's something that means a lot to me and gives me a chance to talk about my mom and my family, which I appreciate. If a few people who otherwise wouldn't have remembered to download my record or check me out or search for me on Spotify remember me because I'm using the name Outlaw instead of Morgan, then cool. Maybe later I'll switch anyway. That kind of stuff is so tertiary than trying to write good songs. For the most part, I feel like for anyone that's come to a show, that's been the takeaway. Whether or not you thought I was authentic before, whatever checked boxes you needed to decide if I'm authentic enough for you, once you hear the set, that's the songs. You either like it or you don't like it.
A lot of people are wrapped up in image these days, though.
Sure. And image, don't get me wrong, I'm very self-centered. And I'm definitely thinking about the visual representation of what I'm doing. But as far as background stuff goes, the ship has fucking sailed on my background. I grew up where I grew up. There's nothing I can do about that.
Sam Outlaw performs a free show on Tuesday, November 24, at Twilite Lounge.