Interview: Sam Outlaw Spreads SoCal Country Sound With ‘Angeleno’
Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way first: Yes, Sam Outlaw's real last name is Outlaw.
Well, technically, the last name he was born with was Morgan -- "a suitable country name as well," Outlaw tells The Boot -- but when the 32-year-old former ad man decided to pursue a music career, he began using Outlaw, his now-deceased mother's maiden name, to honor her ... and because the memorable moniker might give him a small leg up.
"My mom was always someone who was very encouraging with my music," Outlaw explains. "My dad was kind of the more pragmatic business mind, and my mom was really the artist. She was a creative mind, and she was really gifted in a lot of ways."
It was Outlaw's ancestors who first received the surname -- and he says they certainly earned it.
"The Outlaw name comes from Scotland," the singer-songwriter reveals. "[My ancestors] must have been, somehow, bad guys, or they somehow p--sed off the king, and they got kicked out of Scotland, and they were deemed outlaws by the king. And so when they got over here, they kept that name."
Of course, the name is always one of the first things people ask Outlaw about -- something a friend cautioned might happen -- but he doesn't mind because it gives him a chance to talk about his mother.
"It reminds me of how thankful I am to have her in my life," Outlaw says.
On June 9, Outlaw will release Angeleno, a 12-song country album that reflects his Southern California roots -- his family moved from South Dakota on his 10th birthday -- in everything from the mariachi melodies of a few tracks to the lyrics that reveal that sunny, glamorous SoCal isn't always as lovely as it may seem.
"When you grow up out here, it obviously becomes a home, but there's something about LA -- I guess it just becomes sad in a way, perhaps because you see [that] it's not just enough that you can create, but you have to be famous for your creations," Outlaw explains. "We have this culture now where people would almost rather get retweeted than write a good song or deliver a stirring performance -- where the fame takes precedence over the creation itself.
"... Also, I think we all sense that [Los Angeles] used to be something else," he adds, referring to the glamour of the LA of old, "and maybe that something else was special."
Outlaw wrote all of Angeleno's tunes by himself — "a very non-Nashville way to approach it," he says -- but when it came time to record, he assembled an all-star cast of guests: Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, My Morning Jacket's Bo Koster, Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers, drummer and co-producer Joachim Cooder and, the crown jewel, the legendary Ry Cooder (also Joachim's father).
"He's a big country music fan. He's like an encyclopedia of country music," Outlaw says of Ry Cooder, who signed on to play on and co-produce Angeleno after his son played him "really s--tty-sounding demos of [my band and I] playing songs literally in my living room," according to Outlaw.
By the time Ry Cooder joined the project, Outlaw had already recruited Goldsmith and Joachim Cooder to play on the album. Koster and Witcher came on board when Ry Cooder suggested adding in the Wurlitzer and fiddle, respectively, to some tracks.
"Ry's one of those guys where, when you're in his club, you're in, but until you're in, he doesn't know you ... He doesn't stamp you as approved until you're approved," Outlaw says, explaining that he was a bit nervous to bring the new musicians into the studio for the first time. Cooder was familiar with the Punch Brothers and, thus, Witcher's work, but Koster was a wild card, in a sense.
As it turns out, Outlaw had nothing to worry about.
"[Ry] emails like text messages, so I got an email from Ry Cooder that was just, 'Good call on Bo,'" Outlaw recalls. "Which was like, that's as as crazily exuberant as you'll ever get out of Ry Cooder about a musician."
Though Outlaw has earned spots in the lineups at Stagecoach, Coachella and the Americana Music Festival, and his 2014 self-released EP had some buzz around it, he willingly acknowledges that he's still a relatively unknown act, and so getting all of the aforementioned musicians to work with him and play on his album was quite the feat.
"I still can't believe not only that I got to have Ry Cooder make this record but that he plays on all of the songs. And then I got to work with all these people," Outlaw says. "It's crazy because I'm at square zero still; I'm just starting off, and I feel like I completely lucked out."
Every song that Outlaw has ever written was fair game for Angeleno. The end result is an album that spans a good chunk of his lifetime; songs from many years ago butt up against songs that were finished in the studio.
"[Listeners] are getting to actually witness a little bit of my evolution as a songwriter ..." Outlaw says. "As much as I'm always looking forward ... I think I'm really proud of the fact that I was able to take songs that were written across a span of my life ... and make them a completed record."
But coming up with Angeleno's final track order wasn't easy.
"I tossed and turned about the sequence for days and ultimately just said, 'Big deal, dude. Whatever. Just put out the record,'" Outlaw reveals, adding the caveat that he knew that he wanted "Angeleno" and the disc's lead single, "Who Do You Think You Are?" in the first half of the album because "I want the album to create that kind of Southern California feeling."
Representing his SoCal roots is especially important to Outlaw.
"Making country music in Los Angeles -- it's not like Nashville, where there's this built-in love for roots music, but there used to be," he explains. "The history of country music in Southern California is very special, and it's incredible, so as much as God knows I want people to know about me ... in some way, it's almost more important to me that people get turned on to the greater history of country music in LA and Southern California and California.
"There is a very special history of country music in this region," Outlaw adds. "What it used to be and even what it is now."
Sam Outlaw, Angeleno Track Listing:
1. "Who Do You Think You Are?"
2. "Keep It Interesting"
3. "I'm Not Jealous"
4. "Love Her for a While"
6. "Country Love Song"
7. "Ghost Town"
8. "Jesus Take the Wheel (and Drive Me to a Bar)"
9. "It Might Kill Me"
10. "Keep a Close Eye on Me"
11. "Old Fashioned"
12. "Hole Down in My Heart"
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