Southern California singer and songwriter Sam Outlaw burst upon the music scene in 2015 with his critically acclaimed debut album Angeleno. Co-produced by legendary guitarist Ry Cooder and his son Joachim Cooder, Angeleno was a showcase for what Outlaw termed "SoCal country" — a hearty mix of Bakersfield honky tonk and Southern California singer-songwriter pop. Outlaw will celebrate the release of his second album, TenderHeart, with an appearance at the Mercy Lounge on Friday, April 14. The East Nashvillian spoke with Outlaw by phone about his new record, his influences, and the endless and often futile battle of country vs. Americana.
Sophomore albums are always a challenge. How was making Tenderheart different from the experience of making Angeleno?
I was really lucky to receive a lot of critical acceptance of Angeleno. I think a lot of it was having Ry Cooder attached to that project, so following it up was really scary. I didn't think anyone else would want to do it, so I decided, “Fuck it, I'm going to do it.” I went into the studio with engineer Martin Pradler and said, “Let's start this. If we get down the path and we can tell it's not working, we can call in a producer.” I had met Martin when Ry brought him in to engineer Angeleno. He's incredibly talented which is why he's credited as a co-producer. He did far more than simply engineer.
Even though you were working with the same engineer did you approach the recording process differently?
We didn't book a fancy studio or studio musicians this time around. It was just me and primarily my road band. We set up in a house in the San Fernando Valley, kind of home studio style, and we started playing the tunes. I set aside three days for all the basic tracking and we got it done in two and a half. As with Angeleno there's a mix of songs I had in my back pocket, songs that we've been playing live and have become fan favorites even though they never got a proper release, and brand new songs I was finishing on the spot. It's songs about my past, my present, and my future.
One difference that’s immediately apparent is the greater range of stylistic influences, was that a deliberate choice?
I think of Tenderheart as more of a showcase for my influences. Angeleno was pretty straight-ahead country, but on this one I get to show off some of my love for 70s light rock stuff as well as some of my favorite Tom Petty records that have big guitars and big vocals. We got to mix in more of those influences, and I think it gives it more diversity.
I can definitely hear the Tom Petty influence. I like to say that Tom Petty is my “snob test” — if you can’t appreciate his records then there’s a problem with your attitude toward rock music.
That’s because he does so well what I and so many other folks are trying to do. I don't try to pretend that I'm making high-brow esoteric art. I know that I'm making three minute pop songs, but hopefully I make them in way that connects with people and their real emotions. That's what so special about artists like Tom Petty. He's made songs like "Free Falling" which is just a made-for-radio perfect pop song and yet he is really speaking from his heart instead of just being a guy who was handed some lyrics to sing. I think he's one of the all-time best, and if anyone disagrees, I will fight them right now.
There has been a lot of talk in the past year about the so-called war between mainstream country music and Americana music with Jason Isbell’s album debuting at number one on the country chart and Sturgill Simpson winning the Grammy for best country album. Where do you see you music fitting into the country-Americana conflict?
I don't know of any other bifurcation in a musical genre that’s as extreme as what has happened with this country vs. Americana thing. The divisions between the two are so hardline and at the same time so blurry. Just think about it. Sturgill's album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music had the words "country music" right there in the title, and it was nominated for the Grammy for best Americana album of the year. And then his next album, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, gets nominated and wins the Grammy for best country album of the year. The industry can't even decide if Sturgill is Americana or country. Whoever is in charge of this doesn't know what they're doing. So I certainly don't know.
At the end of the day I don't sit down and say now I'm going to record a country record or now I'm going record an Americana record. I just write songs and record them. If the song calls for pedal steel and fiddle thus making it sound to some people like whiskey-soaked authentic country music then fine, that's a country song. But if I feel a song shouldn’t have pedal steel or fiddle I'm not going to do it. I'll never country-up my stuff to fit into a notion of what country should be, and I'm never going to un-country my stuff to make it palatable to people who think that country music is trash. I just sit down with my musicians and play my songs.
Is that ambiguity over country and Americana why you prefer to call your music SoCal country?
That’s one way I tried to avoid the whole issue, just pull a whole new label out of my butt, and say that's what I'm doing. I call it that because it’s part country rock that originated in Los Angeles, part singer-songwriter influences from that same area, California Mexican-American music and Bakersfield honky tonk country. I don't even know how to describe what SoCal country precisely is, but I know that living in Southern California deeply affects my music. If I had made Tenderheart in Nashville I know it would have been a very different sounding record. The best way to answer the question of if I fit into country or Americana is who knows? I guess time will tell. The important thing to remember that what I need to do is create good songs, not make proclamations about what those songs are. I feel like my job is to try to be the best songwriter, singer and guitar player I can be every day.