Sam Outlaw: L.A.’s ‘Tenderheart’ shares his personal ‘California Country’

Sam Outlaw (Photo by Joseph Llanes)
Sam Outlaw (Photo by Joseph Llanes)

There is outlaw country, and then there is Sam Outlaw, country singer. And not even the 34-year-old Angeleno who looks so good in that Stetson wants you to be confused.

“I don’t think I’m a cowboy, I don’t think I’m tough and I don’t ride horses,” Outlaw says with a chuckle. “I have baby soft hands, I like martinis and I watch Netflix. So I guess you could say I’m cosmopolitan.”

Call him a tenderfoot, but it doesn’t make Outlaw’s sophomore album “Tenderheart” any less country. The follow-up to his 2015 debut “Angeleno” finds the songwriter, born Sam Morgan (Outlaw is his mother’s maiden name), evoking the rich history of the genre’s West Coast lineage with steel-laced, heart-on-sleeve  reflections on modern life.

“L.A. is really the birthplace of country rock,” says Outlaw, who was born in South Dakota but moved here with his family when he was 10. “I don’t understand when people say, ‘A country singer from L.A. — what’s that all about?'”

||| Live: Sam Outlaw headlines the Troubadour on June 1. Tickets.

“Tenderheart” is informed by that sense of place — and what Outlaw has called L.A.’s “special sadness.”

“I think there’s a sense of the greatness of L.A.’s ‘used-to-be,'” he says. “Although there’s a music scene, I’ve always regarded L.A. as more of a movie town. It’s also a place where people come to chase their dreams — a small number succeeding but most people failing. Yes, the aesthetic of Southern California is incredible, but that does not mean everything is OK. And sadness is where all great art comes from.”

Already “Tenderheart” has vaulted Outlaw to more prominence, but he is OK with his status as an outsider. “I’m not sure I would be comfortable in ‘the industry,’ where it’s ‘write me a song,’” he says. “Then again, I could be the TSA agent going to work every day and checking somebody’s bag.”

Outlaw is not that far removed from the workaday life; he spent the majority of his 20s in the advertising business. “Now I just try to stay calm and try to get better every day,” he says.

At the behest of Buzz Bands LA, Outlaw has compiled a Spotify playlist titled “California Country” — some influences, personal favorites and overlooked gems. Saddle up and enjoy it below, with his comments on his selections (and, at the bottom, a stream of his latest, “Tenderheart”):

1. Buffalo Springfield – This band is widely considered the first Country Rock band and while they weren’t together very long the various band members went on to form some of the most influential groups of all time.

2. Manassas – Speaking of Buffalo Springfield spawn. Manassas is one of Stephen Stills’ projects. This is the only album available on Spotify and I’d never heard this version of the tune, but it’s awesome.

3. Warren Zevon – I wasn’t really hip to Zevon until about 8 years ago when I met Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes. Now I think of him as one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

4. Mary McCaslin – Another artist I’d never heard of till my girlfriend (now wife) showed me this album ‘Way Out West’. Every song is a masterpiece. You can just picture her trying to make sense of what the hell LA is all about.

5. John Stewart – One of my all-time favorite songwriters. Pretty sure he was always a So Cal guy and it’s sad more folks don’t know his tunes.

6. New Riders of the Purple Sage – Pretty loose stuff here. Country music side project of Jerry Garcia … who tried real hard to play pedal steel.

7. The Byrds – “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is considered Country Rock but I just call it Country. And I love this alternate take of the Louvin Brothers tune. (Gram’s label wouldn’t let the band use the recordings with him singing lead, which is shame because his vocal is great on this song.)

8. Wynn Stewart – Everyone talks about Buck and Merle, but Wynn is my guy. And I really wish Spotify had more of his songs. Killer voice and killer arrangements.

9. Billy Mize – Bakersfield guy who had a TV show and made a huge impact in So Cal back in the ’50s and ’60s. This is a nice Western Swing tune that really shows off his warm voice.

10. Rosie Florez – Pretty sure this first album was produced by Dwight’s guy (Pete Anderson) and this song has that nice country-ism of a sad song with semi-comical lyrics. She’s basically saying “you think you’re in the clear because you’re ‘born again’ but fuck you.”

11. Dwight Yoakam – Everyone loves Dwight but so few people know this album. “Tomorrow’s Sounds Today” is my favorite Dwight album and features some of the best steel licks in the universe. This tune is a duet with Jim Lauderdale.

12. Desert Rose Band (duet w/ Emmylou Harris) – One of Chris Hillman’s many bands, DRB was kind of a country supergroup in the ’80s. All their turns are fucking mental and I like to have my band try to cover them to remind us how much we suck at playing our instruments compared to real professionals.

13. Gram Parsons – Damn this song is good. Pretty sure the lyrics were written by some poet who handed Gram the song on a sheet of paper. Still, Gram had to write the song, arrange it and sing it. And he gets help from the ultimate: Emmylou.

14. Poco – They were basically the Eagles but more country and way less famous. Lots of good jams from this band well into the ’80s and ’90s, but this album might be the best place to start.

15. Randy Newman – Crazy that Randy Newman made an album with Eagles as his backing band. This song is a gem. Catchy as fuck, sad and oh so country. I love Randy Newman so much I feel like a teenage girl whenever he comes up.

||| Also: Stream Sam Outlaw’s “Tenderheart”