Sam Outlaw: Bringing Back Bakersfield

Sam Outlaw might bear a name that conjures a gruff, bearded biker type à la Waylon & Willie.

But this here Outlaw is rather a sharp looking former salesman who makes classic California country and is just about to release his highly-anticipated sophomore album, Tenderheart.

The Bakersfield Sound, popularized by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the late 1960s, evolved directly at odds with the string-based Nashville Sound blossoming at the same time. Enter Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris and the Eagles, who turned Los Angeles into a hotbed of country-rock in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, Dwight Yoakam came west and made a career with his punk-infused honky tonk, even singing with Buck Owens on the “Streets of Bakersfield”: ‘I came here looking for something/I couldn’t find anywhere else…’

But not too many followed, and the country gold rush turned towards Nashville where it has remained. Now, Sam Outlaw might not be able to revitalize the California country sound all by himself, but he’s doing a tremendous job in reinvigorating its roots. Far from the premises of Nashville’s bro-country, he’s exposing a tender heart beating for country’s neo-traditionalists, smooth countrypolitan and L.A.’s legendary singer-songwriters.

No Depression nailed this point just perfect when they reviewed his debut album Angeleno back in 2015: ‘With that voice, the hat and those looks, Sam Outlaw could be a straight-up mainline Big Country Star. He could be wowing the Nashville scene, starring at the Grand Ol’ Opry, working up to headlining that city’s Bridgestone Arena. He could sing about beer, trucks and gals, finding love and, better still for songwriting inspiration, when love walked out the door. He could buy a ranch and ride horses. Game over. Success. But that ain’t the story so far.’

No, Sam Outlaw seems to have other plans. Still based in the town south of Bakersfield, he uses L.A. as a backdrop for his exquisite songwriting, as demonstrated in new standout tracks like “Bottomless Mimosas,” “Bougainvillea, I Think” and “Dry In the Sun.” The new album marks a progression in his songwriting efforts, but it remains rooted in the same environment as his critically lauded debut, and it was made together with many of the same folks that collaborated on Angeleno, including harmony singer Molly Jenson, Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket).

And when it comes to his name, Outlaw is as authentic as it gets, that being his mother’s maiden name. We chatted with Sam Outlaw about his upcoming album, dropping this Friday via Six Shooter and Thirty Tigers.

* * *

Congratulations with a new album. What do we get and what’s it about?

Thanks! Tenderheart is about matters of the heart and how our choices lead us down one path or another. We’re all on a journey to find our truest self, and while we can’t always control what happens to us we have a choice in how we behave. After a while behaviors become habits and habits ultimately determine the state of our hearts. This album tells stories from my past, present and maybe even my future.

What is the biggest difference between Tenderheart and Angeleno?

Angeleno had a pro producer (Ry Cooder) and was tracked at a fancy studio in North Hollywood. I self-produced Tenderheart from a small house in the San Fernando Valley.

What inspired you the most when you started writing the songs that ended up on this album?

Los Angeles inspires me. The aesthetic of the city – past and present – and the stories I find in this place. I wanted to show off my softer side but also went full rock on a few tunes. Los Angeles is the birthplace of Country Rock and that legacy is all about combining styles and trying new things.

Did you have a clear idea or vision on how Tenderheart should be from the get-go, or did it develop along the way?

Both. Some of the songs had been played a lot on the road so we had them pretty figured out going in. Some of the songs got finished in the studio. We’d choose arrangements on-the-spot and I’d finish writing the lyrics after the basic tracking was complete.

What can you share about the recording process and working with this material in the studio?

Basic tracking was knocked out in 2.5 days, but then I had to go back on tour. I finished the record whenever I’d get home from tour and have a day or two off. Took a while to finish just because I was touring so much. My engineer is a genius named Martin Pradler. He’s the guy that Ry works with a lot and he engineered Angeleno. I asked Martin to co-produce Tenderheart with me because he’s so much more than just an engineer. He helped shape the sounds and even played some percussion and synth stuff. He’s also tight with Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers so we had some pretty cool guitars lying around the house.

What kind of feelings or sentiment do you wish leaving for the listener after hearing it?

The songs and records I enjoy the most are the ones where it seems like the songwriter is writing about themselves but also somehow writing about me. I was experiencing lot of different emotions when I wrote these songs and when I tracked them so I suspect the listener will pick up on that.

Please describe a preferred setting to ultimately enjoy the album?

Best bet is always to pick your favorite room, smoke a little weed and listen through your best headphones. Next best option is to hit the road and turn up the car stereo.

What would be the headline of the worst review?

Like, if someone hates the album and writes a scathing review? If my music creates intense emotions, good or bad, at least it’s getting to somebody. Maybe the worst review would be purely apathetic. Something like “Sam Outlaw’s new album is so forgettable I had to immediately re-listen just to write this headline”.

What’s in your opinion is the most perfect album ever made and why?

Fuck man, I hate these questions, ha ha. Too many to choose from but I’m still over the moon for Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d City.

How do you view the status of the album format in 2017?

Gone are the days of going to a store, buying a CD, cracking the case and leafing through the liner notes. I kinda miss my Discman.

Bjørn Hammershaug
Originally published on, April 2017.

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