It's an image straight out of the Museum of Country Music Stereotypes—a musician by the name of Outlaw, barreling through the dusty highways of Texas with his band amid a sleepless tour that may or may not bring in any cash.
The stereotype starts to unravel inside the tour van. There, you'll find the musician with his wife and 1-year-old kid, not some half-drunk, road-hardened troubadour. And when the band begins to play, the stereotype is gutted entirely, the machismo of traditional honky-tonk swapped for reflective West Coast Americana.
Sam Outlaw is used to this scenario. Country purists continue to be dumbfounded by the Los Angeles singer-songwriter's sound, which is plenty twangy but accented by sensitive lyrics, breezy California country-rock and even mariachi brass. In short, Outlaw has the line dancers in a real tizzy.
The 34-year-old born Sam Morgan isn't exactly a lifer. He played trumpet as a kid and dabbled in choir before latching onto records by Texas swing masters Asleep At The Wheel. He tried writing songs, but held onto his full-time gig in ad sales.
"I held out until the very last minute," Outlaw says of his plunge into music. "I watched a lot of friends in fairly big bands continue to be piss poor and live in shitty hotels and apartments." Eventually, he borrowed money from his dad to complete his first record. Soon, he had a slot on famed Americana variety show Music City Roots in Nashville. "I can now attest that being poor and staying in shitty hotels as a musician is true," he jokes.
April saw the release of Outlaw's sophomore record, Tenderheart. It arrived at an interesting time for country, when the mainstream continues to chase tail and swill beer while acts like Sturgill Simpson, Marlon Williams and Robert Ellis add nuance and regional identity. Outlaw occupies the latter category, honoring the traditionalism of Merle Haggard while importing eclectic folk elements that could only come from a cultural melting pot like Los Angeles.
"Don't get me wrong, I love pop," Outlaw says. "Songs shouldn't go much longer than three minutes. My biggest beef with most country music today is that it sucks."
Fortunately, Outlaw is having a say in changing that. Two albums in, he may not be rich, but he's earned a significant following. He has the blessing of fellow Californian, roots legend Ry Cooder, who Outlaw collaborated with on his first album, Angeleno. He was the first American artist signed to lauded Canadian indie label Six Shooter Records. This year, Outlaw was even named for an Emerging Artist honor by the Americana Music Association. Despite his early hesitation, Outlaw is fully embracing his new career, and the accolades that come with it.
"Some people are afraid to say they want to be successful," he says. "But I want that."
SEE IT: Sam Outlaw plays Doug Fir, 830 E Burnside St., with Michaela Anne, on Tuesday, May 23. 9 pm. $12 advance, $13 day of show. 21+.