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California country-rocker Sam Outlaw on remembering Dr. Hook, doing the dishes, and avoiding bro country

Sam Outlaw

Sam Outlaw Photo courtesy of artist.

Sam Outlaw doesn’t know who Sam Hunt is. And that’s a good thing.

“You’re probably the only person who knows Sam Outlaw and Sam Hunt,” he tells me via phone from a tour stop in Columbus, Ohio. The two Sams are pretty different, it's true, and they represent the divided world of country music. One namedrops Train, sing-raps, and dominates Top 40 country radio despite not sounding country at all. The other is a new dad from L.A. who wears a Stetson and has won over fans from the coast to the heartland to Scandinavia.

Sam Outlaw and his band will stop by the 7th St. Entry tonight in support of Tenderheart, an album that expertly blends of California soft rock and the ’80s-style country of Vince Gill. We chatted about the tour, the album, and our favorite soft-rock songs.

City Pages: Tenderheart obviously sounds different than Angeleno. It’s more California soft rock than California country. Why the change in direction?

Sam Outlaw: I think any time I get into a studio, record anything or when I sit down to write, there’s not a real plan or a real reason, it’s whatever’s coming out. I think my love for soft rock, ’70s light rock, ’80s and ’90s pop rock like Bryan Adams, that stuff has always been there. It’s just going to take time for everything to bubble to the surface. A lot of the narrative of the new album has been “soft and gentle,” for obvious reasons. It’s true, but the whole back half of the record is all rock. I think people perceive it in a certain way because of the order of the tunes -- it didn’t quite feel like the record I wanted at first, so I changed the order of the songs. All of a sudden it felt really good. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next album is more of that John Mellencamp heartland rock, but who knows? I don’t sit around with any kind of plan.

CP: Some of these songs on Tenderheart are kinda sad – like you were feeling blue on tour or something. Are they autobiographical?

SO: The one song on the record that’s completely autobiographical is “She’s Getting Hard to Get Rid Of.” That’s about my previous marriage. It’s kind of the classic thing: someone not caring about you ’til you say you’re really done, then they say you’ve never loved you so much. I started writing “Everyone’s Looking for Home” about someone else, and then my own life caught up with the story. It’s weird, when I sing “Angeleno,” the last verse says, “They didn’t plan for a baby, but God gave them a son.” I don’t think I was married to Andie when I wrote that. It’s weird how stuff tends to catch up with you.

CP: What’s your favorite track on Tenderheart?

SO: I really like the title track. It has a [traditional rock ’n’ roll] “whoa whoa whoa” chorus that makes some people want to kill themselves. [laughs] I expected there to be more backlash with a country singer playing that, but people have been digging it.

CP: There’s a misconception about country music being super alpha-male. However, a lot of ’80s-’90s male country stars weren’t so macho -- George Strait is a bleeding heart, Keith Whitley…. When do you think that uber-macho trend started again?

SO: They were making soft rock that was considered country. I think whatever you want to call it, the “bro country” thing, it’s a really unfortunate, reductive take on pop-country. I think to market art, a lot of people think it has to be dumbed down, which is why the nuance of being a masculine man who also has feeling gets lost for marketers. Any woman who’s dated around could tell you, this manly man thing is really a farce. The kind of guy you want to be with is someone who can express emotions, has a vocabulary, reads books, isn’t afraid to clean a dish. I think when it comes to art, the best art that’s made has nuance. What I think of modern corporate supported pop-country radio, it’s basically rock and roll without any nuance … dumbed down KFC. I used to play a game with myself [listening to Top 40 country] and see how long I could go without changing the channel, I don’t think I ever made it more than a minute. Maybe I should have more knowledge, but I just couldn’t even hang for like a song.

CP: If you had to pick a rapper and a boy band to go on tour with, a la Florida Georgia Line with Nelly and the Backstreet Boys, who would you pick?

SO: Kendrick Lamar, I would pick him for anything. If he wanted to date me … anything Kendrick required I’d be there for that. I always thought BSB were fuckin’ awesome. When I hear those songs, I get that nostalgic smile on my face.

CP: So what is your favorite soft-rock song?

SO: “Lady in Red” is such a classic. That song is insane. I referenced the synth for the song “Tenderheart.” We didn’t make it so prominent in the mix, but that’s gotta be up there in a perfect soft rock jams. I’m always surprised that a lot of people haven’t heard the band Dr. Hook. They’ve got such good jams. We were listening to “Sharing the Night Together,” and I think that’s a pretty perfect song.

CP: And lastly, what are you going to cover at 7th St.? Last year, you did George Strait’s “Love All Night,” which I obviously loved.

SO: That’s a good question. [Outlaw’s harmony singer] Molly [Janson] does a great version of Dolly Parton’s “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That.” We’re gonna have our fiddle player at this stop, so we might have Molly do Shania Twain. I love “You’re Still the One,” and Molly does a great version of “Any Man of Mine.”

Sam Outlaw
With: Michaela Anne
When: 7 p.m., Tues. May 2
Where: 7th St. Entry
Tickets: $12/$15; more info here