Los Angeles and southern California aren’t as synonymous with country music as, say, Nashville or Memphis, but as Sam Outlaw sees it, there’s a “small but mighty” scene that resides there.
“When I started branding my music as SoCal country or California country, I think what I was trying to do was tin a few different influences, and they’re really the Bakersfield sound, the honky-tonk sound that just sounds like straight-ahead country music,” says Outlaw during a drive from a ranch in the “middle of nowhere” Wyoming to Idaho to meet up with his band. “Then you have that singer-songwriter influence and all the greats from the ’60s and ’70s, like Jackson Brown; Crosby, Stills & Nash; James Taylor; the whole troubadour scene … And then if you live in Los Angeles, the ubiquitous nature of Mexican culture is highly influential.”
Outlaw (his mother’s maiden name) released his debut full-length album Angeleno in June, and it has enough twang and pedal steel to impart nods to the old-school days of country, but there’s a laid-back California vibe that resonates on the tracks, too. Despite its vintage sound, the album wasn’t meant to be a kitschy throwback. Rather, it captures what drew Outlaw to the genre in the first place.
“The songwriting, the stories, the soul and pedal steel … these things, to me, are what make country music country music, and if a song has a good story and has some soul in it and a singer really makes you feel that song, then I think that’s a special thing,” he explains, adding he doesn’t really keep tabs on modern country. “I’ve still got plenty of great old music to catch up on, so I feel lucky that there’s still that music out there at our fingertips.”
Outlaw points out that a writer compared his music to a soft-rock song with pedal steel as a bit of a dig, but that’s precisely what he was going for on Angeleno. He grew up listening to the Eagles and other light rock from the ’70s, along with the country
“Bands like the Eagles [and] Pure Prairie League are really influential to me because they showed a way to take country influences and mix them with a great ’70s rock ‘n’ roll vibe and make something really special,” he says. “I truly do have a passion for lots of different types of music, but when it comes down to it there’s just something about country music that gets to my heart like nothing else.”
The 12 tracks that make up Angeleno—produced by roots veteran Ry Cooder, who also played guitar on the album—span the last five years or so for Outlaw, capturing what he describes as a “sad optimism,” wherein a person is aware of love and positive things but still cognizant of the struggles in life.
“Somebody said, ‘Even happy songs are written from a place of sadness,'” he notes. “There’s some sad songs, and there’s some happy songs, but at the end of the day, that’s life. Life is made up of joys and sorrows, and if you didn’t have both of those things, then really, what the hell are you writing about?”
Fri, Jul 10 (8 pm)
Starlite Room, $25 – $28