Los Angeles-based country singer-songwriter Sam Outlaw makes his second visit to Australia this month. Les Thomas spoke to him about creating country music in Southern California, working with Ry Cooder on his debut album, and his upcoming Australian shows including Out On The Weekend.
This will be your second visit to Australia in less than a year. Can you fill us in on what you’ve been up to recently?
I kind of feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes since I was out there last. When i was in Australia in April, I’d just quit my job and started doing music full time, so i got back from doing that tour with Justin Townes Earle and officially released the record [Angeleno] in the United States at the beginning of June. and then before that and after that I’ve pretty much been touring full time. I did some shows with Dwight Yoakam and Clint Black and one of my other favourite country bands Asleep At The Wheel. I got to tour with a great band called Dawes. I’ve played some kinda festival things and played some stuff in Nashville. We went through Americanafest in Nashville. I’ve pretty much been playing music full time. I got to open for these Texas guys Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers. So I’ve just been touring my guts out, is the simplest way to put it.
I understand you were born in South Dakota, but have live in Southern California from age 10. How did you fall in love with country music and decide this was for you?
So I was born in the mid-west, but mostly grew up in Southern California. I was really lucky that my dad was a huge fan of one of the bands I just mentioned called Asleep At The Wheel. And they kind of came on the scene in the 70s with the western swing revival. At some point they were based out of Austin, but I think somehow he discovered them when he was going to school out in Seattle, Washington. That was really the only country music we’d listen to. Almost every family trip and holiday was listening to Asleep At The Wheel.
I didn’t really listen to a lot of country stuff. It was more like the usual stuff that makes you fall in love with music like The Beatles and The Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys and whatnot. When I was in my early-20s i just kind of stumbled upon some live performances of George jones and Emmylou Harris. So that was the first time I heard “real country music” and just feel in love with it completely. When I heard George Jones for the first time, I went out and bought his music and never looked back.
It seems that, looking at the path you’ve taken, you’re not the kind of person who’s afraid to lay down your own road. You’re doing it from Los Angeles, not really regarded as the home of country music. I understand that, thanks largely to your work, there are real shows happening in that town. How did that evolve?
I first started playing with a band in 2009. I was different because I wore a cowboy hat. Even back then there were bands that were more like the folk group thing. You saw a lot of bands with banjo and mandolin, but not a lot of bands playing straight ahead country music. Over the last tewo years I’ve seen this growth in bands that are playing country music and people diving into, not just the must, but also the culture. There’s a few more Stetson’s roaming around Los Angeles now. So there’s always been a scene for country music in Los Angeles and i don’t know if it will ever be as big as it was in the 60s and 70s or even 80s. I don’t think any of us are holding our breath to go mainstream, so to speak, but there’s certainly still a lot of country fans in Los Angeles and in the Valley. Even if there’s not a honky tonk bar to play in, whatever show we play we just convert that bar into a honky tonk for the night and make that our fantasy for the night.
And you quit your lucrative and stable career selling advertising to do country, which isn’t really the king of move you’d expect from someone who’s in it for the money.
That’s right. I don’t have a day that goes by that I don’t have fears and self-doubt. Not necessarily thinking, ‘Oh maybe I should have kept my day job’, but it is really gnarly to go from a stable job and I was making more money than anybody else that I was friends. It was a very good, flexible job and in some ways the job kept me playing music enough that it could be a hobby, but also really kept me from diving into it full on. For a lot of people, maybe they go from working as a coffee barista, flipping burgers, working in some shitty job that they don’t really like anyway and then they say “Well, I can be poor doing music, so why not?”. So I think it was a little tough for me to give that up, but once I realised I was just selling advertising for the money and thought about doing something more fulfilling and I guess I also wanted to see if I could do it. I’m not saying I’ve even proven that to myself yet, but God knows every day I wake up and I try and when I play shows I think ‘This is what you’ve chosen to do’. Especially when you’ve been on the road for a while. You get cranky; you get upset. It’s easy to get an attitude or a chip on your shoulder about playing music.I think on those days I have to remind myself and say, “Look, man. You gave up that other life to do this and if it’s not a huge money-making venture right now you’ve gotta be thankful that you’re getting to do this every day.” It can be frustrating and tough and it’s not as easy as getting that sweet pay check every two weeks. [laughs]
It sounds like your mother played a large part in nurturing your artist side. You’ve adopted her maiden name [Outlaw].
Yeah, of course. When I first started playing under the Outlaw name is was more on a superficial level with the catchiness of the name and the country aspect of the outlaw association. But my mom passed away a couple of years ago now at that point it turned into something more significant. In interviews like this it gives me a chance to talk about my mom. It gives me a chance to remember her every night with a song called “Ghost Town” [see below] that gives the metaphor of a town that used to be something but it’s now been deserted and abandoned. It’s a simple metaphor for something that happened in my family and ultimately the death of my mother.
So it’s technically still a stage name. My last name is Morgan, but I think it’s become more than just a stage name at this point. It helps me to keep some kind of separation between my music life and my personal life. And it’s kind of fitting because doing this kind of music can feel a little crazy at times … and a little stupid. [laughs]
Also, back in Old England they had very literal naming conventions, so it would suggest there’s an outlaw heritage.
Yeah, that’s right. And I know my Outlaw family comes from Scotland. The Outlaws used to be the McGregor clan. The king booted them out of Scotland and deemed them Outlaws and, for whatever reason, the name stuck.
That’s a great story. And coming to Australia you’ll be surrounded by the descendants of outlaws as well.
[Laughs] That’s right. Maybe that’s why Australia connects with this music so much, because I was out there last time and it really was a treat to play for audiences that really love country music and they’re passionate and excited about it. So that’s a good place to be.
What was it like having Ry Cooder produce your debut album? What would you say he brought to it?
First of all, it was incredible to make a record with Ry Cooder. I feel like, even though I’ve been doing this for half a year, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I don’t deserve this.’ But he brought a few really crucial things. First of all, he brought his guitar work. On all those tracks you can hear him playing guitar and you can hear his son Joachim Cooder playing on the drum kit. Ninety per cent of what you hear on those tracks is what we did live as a band in the first three days. His guitar work is completely distinct from anything else you could have got from another guitar player and it’s just about experience as much as anything. I felt confident about my songs and I wasn’t looking to him to help me with arrangements or writing the songs. He simply brought a lot of experience to understand if we had a good take, if the vibe was right, the groove was right. No matter how good you are, you just can’t have experience until you’ve had it, right?
So that was a big deal and for just knowing who to call for the mariarchi band, backing vocals. As a musician he brought some sweet sounds and style to those songs. There’s just no way to achieve that sound without him playing on every song.
SAM OUTLAW TOUR DATES OCTOBER 2015
All shows with Jonny Fritz and Shelly Colvin except where noted
Friday 16 – Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan, VIC
Sunday 18 – Northcote Social Club, Northcote, VIC
Wednesday 21 – Grace Emily Hotel, Adelaide, VIC – with The Slow Ruin
Sunday 25 – Newtown Social Club, Sydney, NSW
Also appearing at
Saturday 17 – Out On the Weekend Festival, Melbourne, VIC
Saturday 24 – Out On the Weekend Festival, Sydney, NSW