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Meet Sam Outlaw, the ad pro turned rising country rambler

Sam Outlaw

Sam Outlaw

Sam Outlaw is a busy man. He’s been touring like crazy all over the world, stopping everywhere from the U.K. to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to treat crowds to his signature blend of laid-back California vibes and classic country.

He’s also got a baby at home in L.A. and just finished recording a new album, which may or may not be slightly influenced by Vince Gill. It'll be the follow-up to his 2015 debut, Angeleno, which featured production work from Ry Cooder and guest spots from members of My Morning Jacket, Dawes, and the Punch Brothers. 

Outlaw, 34, will hit 7th St. Entry on Tuesday, but before his stop at our downtown Minneapolis institution, we chatted with him about his Midwestern roots, Top 40 country, and why he quit a high-paying advertising job to pursue country music. 

City Pages: You were born in South Dakota, so you’ve got Midwest roots.

Sam Outlaw: We moved from South Dakota when I was three, but my dad’s one of nine kids and he’s the only one of those nine kids that left. My grandparents, my cousins and uncles and aunts -- they’re all basically there. Growing up, we’d do our summer vacation and road trip back to South Dakota to hang out with the farm crew. That’s how we’d spend our summers, hanging out with the Morgan family in South Dakota.

CP: I’m sure everyone asks you this, but Outlaw is actually a real family name for you, right?

SO: It technically is a stage name. I was born Sam Morgan, but Outlaw is my mother’s maiden name. A lot of people think it’s completely made up stage name, but the music I’m doing -- it’s not super hardcore honkytonk. It’s kinda light rock, the lighter side of country. So I think it’s funny that the name for some people becomes a gatekeeper. Maybe they don’t want to check it out because they think it’s a made up name, or they do but are surprised when they’re not hearing Waylon Jennings.

CP: What’s your story with country? Did you grow up with it or did you realize you loved it randomly one day?

SO: I grew up listening to only one country band -- Asleep at the Wheel. When I was growing up, every road trip and vacation, my dad was blasting Western swing. It wasn’t til my early 20s that I discovered classic country. I was sitting at home in Newport Beach in Orange County; I’d taken the day off work, I had the flu and was in bad shape. I channel surfed [to a CMT 100 Greatest Country Singers countdown] by accident and I saw the Top 10.

For the first time ever I got to see and hear George Jones, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris. I went out the next day and got the Emmylou CD Pieces of the Sky and bought a George Jones compilation. [Jones] instantly teaches you what a country singer is supposed to sound like. There’s a reason he’s considered the best there is.

CP: You’ve kind of done the opposite of what most young musicians do -- you quit a day job to focus on music full-time. Why?

SO: I always joke that I’m living the dream of a 24-year-old, getting the van and playing music. A lot of my friends in college were musicians. I did some music stuff, I was writing songs, but when I got out of college, [I thought], “I don’t know that being the touring musician is for me.” I landed in advertising and was making good money. I had flexibility and I had a degree of anonymity. I did that for 10 years.

I didn’t care about advertising. I’m not the kind of person who can do a job I don’t care about. As that transition happened, the calling for songwriting got greater. [During my] 30th birthday party, I realized, “Damn, I’ve got all this stuff, money, a nice place, a nice car -- but I don’t feel good about it.” That’s not because I hadn’t earned it, I just didn’t feel proud about it.

Now if I make $100 playing music I feel proud of that money. That was a turning point. It was almost three years before I got the courage up to leave the security of the full-time gig to do music full-time. I think every day is still a struggle. I wake up with a voice saying that I’m not good enough, I can’t make it. I try to fight [those fears] and stay busy making music. At the end of the day, we’re all gonna bite the dust anyway.

CP: Let’s talk about the whole California thing. You’re based in California, and your sound is definitely California-style. It’s not all George Jones and George Strait. Where did those influences come from?

SO: As much as we’ll cover George Strait and Merle ... the sound is influenced by three main things: the Bakersfield honkytonk sound, the ‘70s singer-songwriter thing that came out of Southern California, and Laurel Canyon like James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash, Jackson Browne, and then certainly being in L.A., Mexican music and culture is a pervasive influence as well. It made sense to have mariachi on some of the tracks. I think those three things come together to make my own brand of uniquely unpopular country.

CP: “Angeleno” isn’t really something that will get major play on mainstream country radio. What do you think about what’s going on in Top 40 country – and why do you write what you do?

SO: The simple answer is I don’t really think about radio country. A lot of the stuff I’m hearing these days -- not to make myself sound like a grumpy old man -- it’s so weird that it’s not catchy. I don’t know why people are making songs without hooks. My issue isn’t that it’s not country enough. I don’t need pedal steel to fill my quota. It’s just that it sucks. I almost never get exposed to it. I really don’t know it! I’m not trying to sound cool.

CP: You occasionally do covers of some ‘90s country songs on your Instagram. Let’s talk about that, because it’s my favorite period of country music.

SO: Once I discovered classic country, I was a snob about [’80s and ‘90s country.] I assumed everything after 1975 was no good. I kept it at arm’s length until my wife was like, “Dude you need to listen to this shit!” She made me a Spotify playlist that included Clint Black, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Pam Tillis -- that’s when I was like, “This music is the best!” I fell in love with it thanks to her. Now it’s insane to think that there was a time that I wasn’t listening to Vince Gill.

My new album has a song called "Tender Heart." I think that might end up being the name of the album. It’s soft rock, and the idea of that is basically what Vince Gill was: late-‘80s, early-‘90s soft rock mixed with pedal steel. I don’t need something to sound like Waylon Jennings from 1972 to feel like it’s country.

I don’t have any rules. I get bored easy. There’s no fucking way I’m going to make records where I’m trying to sound like George Jones for 30 years.

CP: What’s next for you? Are you recording?

SO: I finished [the record] over the last six months. I can’t wait to share it with people. It’s been so damn long [14 months] since the last record came out. A lot of these tunes are greatly affected by the fact that I’ve been playing music every night. It captures the live “rock bandness” of what I’ve been doing.

I’ve been listening to ‘70s classic rock, so there’s a lot of stuff in the new album that sounds like Tom Petty or Don Henley. I’m pumped to share it with people and for people to not like it because it’s not country enough. [Laughs] You make songs that you like, and when people decide to make you the next big thing, be thankful.  

Sam Outlaw
With: Matt Jennings, Molly Parden
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue., Aug. 9
Where: 7th St. Entry
Tickets: $10-$12; more info here