Sam Outlaw is here for the Out On The Weekend Festival in Melbourne and Sydney as well as some sideshows. By Brian Wise.
Yes, Sam Outlaw is his real name, though he was born Sam Morgan in South Dakota thirty-three years ago he has borrowed his mother’s maiden name as his stage moniker. Given the music he plays it’s not a bad choice – and a name that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.
Outlaw grew up in a conservative Christian family, heard his first music in church where he enjoyed harmonising and followed his parents’ tastes by enjoying the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers.
After being in a high school band (which he calls ‘unfortunate’) he discovered country music through Emmylou Harris and George Jones and started to get more serious about music.
After a self-released EP in 2014, Joachim Cooder – who had met Sam on the road – passed some demos for his father Ry who expressed an interest in not only producing an album but also playing on it.
Outlaw’s impressive debut album Angeleno was recorded at Megawatt Studios in Los Angeles, with a band that included Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Gabe Witcher (Punch Brothers) and Chuy Guzmán (Linda Ronstadt). Ry Cooder plays on every song.
Earlier this year Outlaw was here on his maiden visit supporting Justin Townes Earle and played acoustic shows. Last month I saw him during Americana at 3rd & Lindsley with a band that included Joachim Cooder on drums and a style that was reminiscent of early Dwight Yoakam. During the show Outlaw took time out to thank Americana radio stations for playing his music saying that he had no hope of getting played on commercial radio which sounded odd because his songs sounded perfectly suited to a ‘country music’ format.
I caught up with Outlaw to talk about his history and his music and the first topic I asked him to talk about was his early background.
For those people who aren’t aware of your back story can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you come and how you got into music?
I guess there’s a couple of things I always like to point out. I really try to claim no country roots. Sometimes I hear about country singers trying to claim some family history or something that makes it seem like they were just born to play country music. I really can’t say that I have that. I was born in South Dakota. While that is a Mid-West state and obviously having all of my dad’s family be farmers and whatnot one could deduce that that’s my country heritage.
I really didn’t grow up on country music. We moved to Southern California when I was ten years old. I don’t even try to claim necessarily even a regional reason for being drawn to country music. There was one country band that I did technically grow up on and that’s this great ’70s western swing revivalist group called Asleep at the Wheel. When I was growing up, I guess that was a big part of our family life, every family vacation and road trip and holiday was listening to Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel.
I guess in a lot of ways that maybe is what started the interest. When I was coming on line as far as when you start listening to music beyond just what’s on the radio, whatever your parents are playing, it was the usual suspects that I got really hooked on, The Beatles and any sort of Britpop from the ’60s.
Then the American stuff: The Beach Boys and The Byrds. I grew up in a very conservative Christian family so in many ways modern rock and roll was considered evil, but I was allowed to listen to oldies so I listened to the Everly Brothers and all of those greats from the ’50s and 60s.
Then fast forward to high school and again I probably mostly started getting obsessed with music when I watched The Beatles Anthology. Then from there I got into all of the great Britpop that was happening in the ’90s – Radiohead and Blur and whatnot. I had more of a rock upbringing up until right when I got out of college.
I was twenty-two years old. I was working my first job out of college. I was working at a record label actually, in Southern California and I got some bad stomach flu or something and I was home sick from work, back and forth between the couch watching TV and then barfing in the bathroom.
I remember I stumbled on Country Music Television, CMT, doing the hundred best country songs of all time or hundred best country singers or something. That was the first time I heard the great classic country music singers: George Jones, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, and all those.
I really I wish I had more authentic background where I grew up working on a farm and on a ranch and my dad used to play old Merle Haggard tapes in the pickup truck. I don’t really have that. It was really there was this one country band that I think set the soil maybe in my heart for loving country music. Then I was twenty-two years old and stumbled onto this program on TV showcasing great country singers.
I remember it just totally blew my mind when I heard George Jones for the first time. I went out and bought a George Jones Greatest Hits compilation thing. It was whatever they had at the local record store. Then I remember I bought Emmylou Harris’s first album Pieces of the Sky which of course has songs that are written by the Louvin Brothers and written by Gram Parsons. Really that album just diving into that and those songwriters can send you on this whole great wild goose chase for great country music. That’s one thing I like to point out.
I’m not trying to claim any country roots except maybe I just got really lucky and I’m grateful that my parents played Asleep at the Wheel growing up.
The other thing is playing under the name Sam Outlaw. Obviously the name ‘outlaw’ raises eyebrows for people and they wonder what the hell is going on but Outlaw is legitimately my mother’s maiden name. I think when I first started playing in front of people five, six years ago, and attempting to play my poorly written country music I first thought, ‘Hey, this is a family name and it’s catchy and country so I’ll use it as my stage name.’ Then, I think over time it’s developed into something much more, I guess with my mom passing away a couple of years ago, I find it a nice way to honour her memory and then, quite frankly just carry on a family name.
It’s something that’s just very important to me and it’s something that I can every day I guess take with me. I don’t know it creates a sense of family and certainly a fond remembrance of my mom to get to use the outlaw name.
Those are two things that I always like to point out.
That’s a very nice tribute.
I’ve had people ask me, ‘Are you worried about people assuming that your music is going to sound like outlaw country,’ so again the Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Mickey Newbury, early ’70s stuff. I just always say, ‘No I don’t worry about that.’ I think even most more legitimate country fans are even hardly aware that there’s this sub-genre of country called outlaw country, and even of the people that are aware I don’t even know if they even exactly know what it means.
It’s something that’s popped into my head. I remember early on I was just going back and forth, should I just use my given name Sam Morgan because that’s still a fine name. I’m a huge fan of Keith Whitley, who was married to Lorrie Morgan. She’s one of the all-time great singers. Morgan is a fine country name but then I think at the end of the day I realised I feel like this is first of all a family name and it’s something that does conjure up perhaps western and county images for people. If anything it just makes the name a little more catchy so that someone might remember who the hell I am because they saw me do a song or a they heard a track or whatever it is.
If the name in any way helps connect with people a little bit and I have a better chance of being remembered or being heard then I might as well make the most of that. I guess I’ve worried before at times about any confusion or any whatever questions about it but, so far I think it’s probably done me a little bit more good than any real harm.
Sam Morgan sounds a little bit too much like Nashville doesn’t it? But Sam Outlaw is perfect.
Yes. Again, it’s funny if you look up most of your favourite entertainers, even the ones that have “normal sounding” names half of them ended up using a name that’s different from the given name. Another thing I’ve found maybe over the last few years especially as I started really putting my best foot forward with music and things have picked up in the last year or so, I think it’s also a way of maybe helping keep your, I mean not wanting to sound like melodramatic here, but keeping your stage persona or your entertainment, the entertainment part of your life at somewhat of arm’s length from your ‘real’ self or your home self.
I think there’s some value there, feeling like you have this part of your life is entertaining, part of your life is writing and creating and doing all these things that go along with whatever you what to call it, show business, but it’s also nice to feel like you have some reprieve and some distance from that when you need it. So maybe using somewhat of a stage name or whatever is convenient for that purpose as well.
You mentioned Asleep at the Wheel.
Yeah, they are absolutely incredible. I got to see them for the first time live. I actually went with my dad and, fortunately, it was with my Mom as well before she passed away – this was probably five or six years ago. I got to see them play a show and then I got to see them again a couple of years ago for my birthday. My wife drove me up to central California. They were doing a Road House tour.
Anyway I got to see them do that show. It was on my birthday. They do two shows, an earlier show and a dinner kind of thing. I remember I brought my Dad’s old LP from the ’70s with his initials on the back. I drank way too much wine at dinner and then I staggered up to the steel player and tracked down Ray Benson. I was with my wife, so nervous like a little kid. I knock on their dressing room door where they’re just probably trying to scarf down some food before they have to play their second set.
Ray Benson came out and he signed my Dad’s LP and he talked to me for a minute and the dude is just larger than life. It was so cool. Now I’m going to get to open a couple of shows for them in northern California so I’m totally thrilled.
Fantastic. Let’s talk about the really exciting news in your career. Your debut album is out and it’s produced by probably my favourite musician of all time, Ry Cooder.
Yeah, he’s not too bad.
He’s quite a handy musician. Tell us about the process of getting Ry involved. Joachim plays on it as well. You’ve got Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, fantastic band. Gabe from the Punch Brothers. What an incredible line up of musicians on the album.
Yeah, which goes such a long way, just having people who really know their way around their instruments. Yeah, so the quick version with Ry is that I got to know his son, Joachim. His son a couple of years ago produced a record for Carly Ritter. She’s a great singer/songwriter. She’s the granddaughter of the great Tex Ritter, the singing cowboy and the actor John Ritter’s daughter.
Anyway, they were on tour together and I met Joachim while on that tour. I was opening for Matt Costa and she was one of the opening acts as well. We met. We became buds. Then I actually technically met Ry Cooder on that tour. He decided to sit in and play some guitar for Carly’s set at her show in San Francisco – but I’m sure Ry wouldn’t even remember that. I was just nervously shaking his hand trying to stay out of the way.
Anyway I called up – I guess this was last summer. I knew I was working on this record. I knew what it was going to be called. I couldn’t wait to make this Southern California country record that was this combination of all of my many influences. I had this whole idea but I didn’t have a producer. I knew I wanted Joachim to play drums on the record, so I called him up one day and pitched him on the idea and he said he’d love to do it. We started rehearsing at my house with, basically, my normal band and then Joachim on drums.
During those rehearsals, I recorded the sessions with my iPhone – just I set my iPhone up on the fireplace mantle in my living room and just recorded whatever nonsense we were making in the living room. We had been reaching out to different producers, some folks I had mind. I actually had been talking with my buddy Taylor Goldsmith about getting different players together and we thought, ‘Well maybe we can produce ourselves if we just have the right players. We can probably get most of the way there.’
Then I get a call from Joachim one day. He’s like, ‘Hey man would you mind sending over the MP3s of the rehearsals that we did.’ ‘No, that’s no problem, but why?’ He’s like ‘Well I want to send them to Ry.’ I was like, ‘Okay, why would you want to do that?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know just send them to me.’
To make a long story somewhat less long, basically I sent the tunes to Joachim. He sent them to his Pop and amazingly Ry really liked the songs and next thing I know we were having breakfast together in Highland Park, nearby my house in Los Angeles. He said that he would like to produce the record. I was just totally, totally blown away because – especially if you’re trying to make something in California that tells a California story and is influenced by this area – I really don’t think you could do better than Ry Cooder, not only because I got to have his musical guitar talent on the record but also just his ear for how to find the special distinctions that go along with each song.
Even though I’m calling this country music I also have a lot of other influences that go into these songs that make it an album that’s full of variety and someone like Ry, who’s an expert at so many genres and who has played so many different types of music, the guy is an encyclopaedia of music history knowledge. He just knows so much about so many styles that it was a real treat to have him understanding how to bring out the specialness in each song so it doesn’t sound like we’re just doing one thing for twelve tracks.
It’s certainly a compliment to you that he would agree to produce the album.
Oh, I seriously couldn’t even believe it almost until the record was done. It was still hard for me to believe that I was getting to work with him. It almost took me having the physical copy of the thing in my hands to be like, ‘Holy shit I really did make a record with Ry Cooder. I just can’t believe it.’
Well, it sounds fantastic.
Of course Ry has naturally got a great touch in the studio. He doesn’t do that much work for other people so that’s even more of a compliment to your talents that he would agree to do it.
Yeah, it’s not like he was shopping himself around town needing a producer job. It’s not like the guy needs to work. He’s just enthusiastic. When he finds something he likes, he just enthusiastically dives into it. It was also really special with Joachim as a co-producer on the record. So on the basic tracking in the room was Ry on guitar, Joachim on drums, my bass player Danny Garcia on bass, Bo Koster from My Morning Jacket playing Wurlitzer and then me and then my steel player. Most of what you heard on the record, like eighty-five, ninety per cent of the record was tracked live in that room in those first three days.
It was really fun getting to even experience playing music with Joachim and Ry together because they definitely have a real natural chemistry together and I think it definitely just contributed to all of our enjoyment to playing the music to feel like everybody was just there because they enjoyed it not because they were just hired on for some kind of faceless gig for a pay check or something.
Ry doesn’t do that many gigs either. I’ve been lucky enough to see him a couple of times, one at the Great American Music Hall, not doing that live album but playing in one of the Richard de Lone Benefits and touring with Nick Lowe and also last year at the Americana Music Awards he was a guitarist in the house band and it was incredible.
Yeah, I was there.
You were there?
I was there yeah because I was actually one of the showcasing artists. I played at The Cannery on Wednesday night and Ry played in the band with me.
That’s right, yeah.
That’s what was so cool going into making the record that first day after we met I got back to my computer and already had four or five emails from him. He was sending me song ideas and stuff and one of the things was, ‘Hey, I see you have a show coming up at the Echo in Los Angeles would it be cool if I sat in with the band. I’d like to get a little more familiar with the songs.’ I think I emailed back like, ‘Yes that would be great.’ By the time we started tracking together he had already played I want to say three or four shows in my band in front of a live audience.
It was an insanely cool treat and honour to have the guy in the band. I mean again to the extent that it was almost harder to believe. I’d see photos I’m like, “Okay that’s me on the stage and that’s Ry Cooder playing guitar. I can’t hardly believe it.”
Let me ask you about one of the songs on the album which has got a classic country title. I think you know what that is, ‘Jesus, Take the Wheel and Drive Me to a Bar.’ It doesn’t get any more country than that.
So, that song is obviously just a ridiculous song. I think I was trying to put myself in the shoes of how in a drunken stupor we tend to rationalise absurd notions. I’d only found out after I had tracked the song that I guess Carrie Underwood has a song called ‘Jesus Take the Wheel.’ I just want to go on record as saying my song has nothing to do with that. It wasn’t a response or anything. I just thought it was funny.
Again it’s a fun song. We’ve been opening our shows with it lately because it’s funny to watch people. You can tell they’re listening and paying attention and then we get to the chorus ‘Jesus, Take the Wheel and Drive Me to a Bar’ and everyone starts cracking up and really paying attention. The fact that you can have a sense of humour in country music is one of the best things about it.
It’s my song title of the year so far. That’s great. Tell us about ‘mariachi country’ because the Mariachi horns just sound fabulous and of course Ry would love putting them in there.
Well, we knew going into it there was going to be at least a couple of songs with it. I had been listening to those Spanish language albums that Linda Ronstadt did in the late ’80s.
Chuy is one of the guys that was part of that group making those records with her so when Ry that he was getting Chuy to come and lead and play the strings for the Mariachi group I was absolutely thrilled. It was important to me that it captured that spirit. That’s a big part of Los Angeles culture obviously, Mexican culture and Mexican-American culture so I think that Ry bringing in the right players and Mariachis and watching him direct the Mariachis almost like he’s directing a movie. He did it all on the spot. They came up with the arrangements really on the spot, so it was really cool.z
Sam Outlaw appears at Out On The Weekend in Melbourne on Saturday October 17 and in Sydney on October 24.
Other dates for Sam Outlaw:
Friday October 16 – Meeniyan Town Hall, VIC
Sunday October 18 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Wednesday October 21 – Grace Emily, Adelaide
Sunday October 25 – Newtown Social Club, Newtown, Sydney.