Interview: Sam Outlaw on Nashville, Los Angeles and the Importance of Community
With Midwestern roots and a life planted in Los Angeles, Sam Outlaw knows a thing or two about the importance of community. From growing up going to church and singing in the congregation every Sunday to building his country band in a city that isn't well-known for its honky-tonk output, Outlaw enjoys being with others doing the thing he loves.
For many years, the thing he loves -- spreading the sweet gospel of his SoCal country tunes -- was just a hobby, something he had to balance with a square office gig. But along with the release of his full-length debut album, Angeleno, in 2015, he decided that it was time to completely commit to his music. Usually this means packing your bags and leaving the bright lights of the big city for the brighter lights of Lower Broadway ... but not for Outlaw.
"As much as I love Nashville, and as much as Nashville supports me -- they support me more than LA has, amazingly," Outlaw tells The Boot with the utmost sincerity, "there's also the kind of backbiting bulls--t that you'd expect when there's a competitive group of people all trying to do the same thing."
This isn't to say he doesn't enjoy Music City or his friends who inhabit it, including Margo Price, Luke Bell and Cale Tyson.
"We're all close, we all support each other," he says, "but after you're in Nashville for more than 10 seconds, you realize it's a very small town: Everybody knows everybody's business and there's a little bit of that 'frenemy' vibe ... like anywhere, like with any industry."
After you're in Nashville for more than 10 seconds, you realize it's a very small town.
It's Outlaw's physical detachment from Nashville that actually allows him to bask in its glory when he visits. As he puts it, "When I go to Nashville, I get revitalized, whereas a lot of folks, when they live there, they feel like they're constantly getting crushed. Who knows? Maybe if I moved there, things would get better, but I think it's great to keep a safe distance from some of that stuff."
For Outlaw, that safe distance is the couple thousand miles between Music City and Los Angeles -- a place that isn't without its own weirdness.
"LA doesn't give a s--t about anybody," Outlaw rattles off without missing a beat. "It's kind of great in that way. You're not a movie star. My friends that are successful musicians ... no one feels famous in LA because you're not Bradley f--king Cooper on the night he wins the Oscar. Until you are, and even when you are, no one really cares. It's nice to be there."
This attitude isn't merely something that Outlaw has witnessed with his friends -- it's something he's experienced himself: "If I'm in the Wall Street Journal, I can go out and buy the paper, and there's my face ... no one f--king cares," he explains. "Who cares? No one gives a sh-t if you go out on tour."
Needless to say, Outlaw doesn't feel like he fits in in the city in which he's spent most of his life.
"It keeps a fire under your a--, and it keeps you guessing," he notes. "It's a beautiful place. It's weird, it's horrible ... it's great and all that I don't fit in there. Even when I go to Nashville and feel like I fit in, it's a little weird. It's too easy -- 'These people know country music? I gotta get out of here!'"
Though more and more people seem to be gravitating toward playing country songs around Los Angeles, it hasn't always been that way: "Some of my best friends who are making music are definitely not making country music," Outlaw says. "When I first started playing in 2009, I can tell you what, nobody else was wearing a f--king Stetson, and nobody else had a pedal steel player in their band."
I think that is why, to this day, I don't like to tour or play solo, because I didn't grow up singing by myself.
With a small community in Los Angeles, however, Outlaw seems to have found a nice balance of those who support him -- he tells The Boot that his wife "is way tougher than me, and she's been an incredible support" -- and, more importantly, those who support an overall love and appreciation of music. But that community isn't unique to LA; rather, it spans the country, so even when Outlaw's on the road, he's able to find this kind of solidarity.
Take New York, for example: During his recent trek to the city, Outlaw planned two surprise gigs at Brooklyn's inimitable honky-tonk, Skinny Dennis (named after late session musician Dennis Sanchez, who played bass with Guy Clark in Los Angeles and is mentioned in "LA Freeway"), and found himself in the midst of people who not only wanted to support him but also wanted to hear him exclusively belt out '80s and '90s country covers.
Or consider when he tours through the Midwest: "In August, I'll be in South Dakota," Outlaw's home state. "It'll be great to get back there. Last summer on tour, I got to go through South Dakota twice. My uncle had, up until recently, a ranch in the Black Hills called Golden West, and we would spend summers there tooling around on four-wheelers and hanging out with family."
Outlaw believes that his sense of community stems from his time singing in church, surrounded by friends and family who all affirmed a common faith -- something common throughout the Midwest.
"I think that is why, to this day, I don't like to tour or play solo, because I didn't grow up singing by myself," Outlaw says of his time belting out hymns in church. "That was my first exposure to music. Why would you ever sing by yourself?"
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