Alt-country artist Sam Outlaw and his wife are trying something different lately. “Both of us have been trying to encourage each other to do what it is that we think we’re supposed to do,” he says.
For her, that meant ditching her “not-so-awesome office job” to work on a ranch. For him, it was quitting his ad-sales executive gig a few months ago to become a cowboy of a different sort. So far, it’s working for both of them. She’s riding horses at a working dude ranch in Wyoming, and he’s touring with country legend Dwight Yoakam in support of his first full-length album Angeleno, produced by roots music hero Ry Cooder. We caught up with Outlaw to talk about the story behind his latest video for “Ghost Town,” how the South became his musical launching pad despite his L.A. zip code, and who to call when you need an emergency classical guitar.
SL: The last time we wrote about one of your videos it was for “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink (And Fall In Love).” But, this song is very different and personal for you.
SO: It is. I grew up in a home with two parents who were in a happy marriage and loved each other and loved us kids very much. Then, when I was 27, my first marriage was dissolving, and suddenly my parents were splitting up, and my mom started dealing with some mental issues. When I came home for Thanksgiving, that’s when I first started writing the song. I felt this weird ghost town vibe with my mom not living there and trying to wrap my head around that. I was understanding what was happening mentally, I didn’t want them to stay together if they weren’t happy together, but emotionally I was trying to catch up.
It’s also about my mom passing away very suddenly. My mom was the sweetest, most charismatic, loving person, but I think people who are especially gifted can often be given a set of gnarly demons they have to deal with, and she really struggled with depression and anxiety. Very unexpectedly she passed away, and this was the first song I finished after that. The last time I talked to her I was at a car wash in Echo Park, and she told me that she thought it was really cool that I was making music and using the Outlaw name, which is her maiden name. It definitely codifies my resolve to use it. I know some people think, ‘Oh Outlaw who does this guy think he is,’ and the truth is I don’t care. Maybe at first, using it was more on a superficial country level, but now it’s become my way to honor her.
SL: What was the story you were trying to tell in the video?
SO: With the video, we were trying to capture the ghost town feel and show me going on a journey to see if I can really go back to the place that I want to go. Eventually I encounter something that’s not shown on screen and I go from being the driver to now I’m the one being driven in the backseat and it’s not clear who’s driving the car anymore. We wanted to create something that ultimately has some resolve but doesn’t have a simple straightforward storyline. Similar to life, the things we experience we don’t really understand in the moment. Everyone’s been through something painful like this, and everyone’s on a journey so with this video we were trying to make something left to interpret in the hands of the viewer.
SL: You bill your sound as SoCal Country. Can you explain the influences you’re overlaying with classic country from the South and early Nashville?
SO: When I coined this SoCal Country thing to explain what it is I’m doing, I realized it’s taking into account three things. It’s taking that classic early Nashville sound from when I first fell in love with good country music in my early 20s like George Jones and Emmylou Harris, people from the South. The other part that goes into that genre is the Baja sound and the Mariachi stylings that are just as strong of an influence to me. The third part is simply singer songwriter stuff like Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Linda Ronstadt.
Things really started happening for me almost a year ago the first time I played Music City Roots in Nashville, and that’s when the stars started aligning not because of what I was doing in L.A. but because of what we are doing in the South. That spirit of, ‘Hey we like what you’re doing and we know other people who will like it too,’ — that’s the people and the personalities of the South and I’m incredibly indebted to them. Whenever we go to the South, like when we went to Asheville, North Carolina, I’ve never been there in my life, and these people filled up the room and partied with us like I was the best band in town, and afterwards they took us all to a bar. That Southern hospitality thing is real.
SL: You grew up in South Dakota and now live in L.A. How did you come to love the country music that influences you?
SO: When I was 22, I was working for a small record label in Orange County, and I was at home sick, wrapped up in a blanket, drinking tea, and channel surfing in my crappy apartment in Newport Beach, and I stumbled upon one of those CMT specials like a countdown of the best country singers of all time. I got there in time for the top dozen. That was the first time I really heard Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris, like really heard her, and the big one was George Jones. So the soil for this love affair was really my dad’s love for Asleep at the Wheel, which was played on every family vacation and road trip and holiday, but when I finally heard really good country music, it blew my mind. The next day I went out and bought a George Jones record and I got Emmylou Harris’ “Pieces of the Sky.” That album in every way is one of my favorite country records.
SL: What was it like working with Ry Cooder on this record? He’s produced and played with everyone from Neil Young to Mavis Staples and Taj Mahal.
SO: When I first met him I was like, ‘Don’t say anything dorky. Try to be cool.’ I was excited but also too excited, but when that wore off it was really cool. One of the e-mails he sent me after I first met with him he asked if he could come sit in with the band on a few of our songs during our show in L.A. and I was like ‘Yeah sure!’ So by the time we got into the tracking room what might have felt like big-name guy working with no-name musician and me feeling like I didn’t have a lot of control over what was going on or an agency to speak up was actually really naturally collaborative. He might be pushing 70 years old, but when he gets in the studio he’s like a little kid. He still has that excitement.
SL: Do you have a stand-out memorable moment from the recording of Angeleno?
SO: A really special moment was when we were tracking this song “Angeleno.” I imagined it having some beautiful classical nylon string guitar work. We still hadn’t added it toward the end of the recording and I said, ‘Hey, Ry, I would love it if you added your touch with the classical guitar to this song.’ But, he didn’t have a classical guitar with him. So I called up my friend Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, who plays on the record too, and I said ‘Do you have a classical guitar? Ry Cooder wants to play it,’ and he was like, ‘Oh hey. Cool. Ry Cooder wants to play my guitar? Sure.’ So he brings over this guitar and Ry starts playing and it was so beautiful I got goosebumps. It makes the song.
SL: When you tour in the South, where is somewhere you make a point to visit?
SO: I’ll tell you what. When the band went to Nashville, I took them to Arnold’s. That’s like my place to eat. When we went last time, there was a line out the door and I just looked at the band and I was like ‘You guys it’s worth it.’ We stood in line for a while, we finally got our food, and we ate it all in like two seconds. All of us were like ‘Yep, worth it.’
To download to Sam Outlaw’s Angeleno on iTunes, click here.