Sam Outlaw is the performing name of California based country artist Sam Morgan. Outlaw is actually his mother's maiden name. He continues a long tradition of West Coast country music that always seem to be at least one step removed from Nashville. Its exponents generally deliver a more heartfelt, harder brand of honky-tonk, well documented in such books as Gerald W. Haslam's book Workin' Man Blues. Outlaw joins such similar minded contemporary exponents as Dave Gleason in keeping the true spirit of the music alive, yet each is doing it in his own way.
Nobody Loves is the title of Outlaw's debut album which is full of self-written songs that have a sound like the new-traditionalists of the 80s and 90s, which is to say country music, but looking forward as much as it looks back. I'm not sure where I came across the name of Sam Outlaw on the internet but when I checked out his site (www.samoutlaw.com) it showed an accomplished, likeable and talented artist and one who appeals to an attractive coterie of ladies too, something that should never be discounted in achieving a lasting career. Some of the current crop labeled of underground outlaws seem to have, predominantly, a male audience. There is, however, much in Outlaw’s music that will have a broad appeal.
Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to contact Sam and ask him some questions. One of which was to enquire if the name Outlaw had caused anyone to accuse him of making association with the "outlaw movement" past or present. The answer was a succinct "no".
You come from South Dakota and now live in Southern California but your association with country music doesn't derive from your upbringing. Where does it come from?
I was home sick from work when I was 22 years old - channel surfing. I stumbled on CMT’s "100 Best Country Singers" or something like, and heard/saw George Jones for the first time. It totally blew my mind. I went out the next day and bought a George Jones album, along with music from Emmylou Harris and others. Before that, the only other good country music I had been exposed to was the Western Swing Revivalist group Asleep At The Wheel (Ray Benson). My dad was a huge fan of their music so their albums were regularly played in our home. Holidays, road trips, etc.
There has been a strong tradition of honky-tonk in that region that you want to revive. Why do you think it died out and what has been the reaction to your music there?
Music historians could better tell that story than myself, but as far as the reaction to my music in So Cal it has all been pretty positive. The best compliment I can get is when someone says, “I don’t even listen to country music but I really liked your songs.” My guess is that most folks in Los Angeles think country music is only what’s on modern country radio and simply haven’t been exposed to something better.
The music feels right for someone who has experienced sad times. Has country music something to offer in these straitened times?
I think country music is the best kind of music, so I’m always blessed to hear it. Good times, bad times or in-between. Sometimes sorrow can inspire creativity as a means of processing and exhaling a sad experience but I don’t think one has to “be sad” to write a good heartbreaker, nor is heartbreak a prerequisite for a good country song.
Some of the best known exponents of California country music have been Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam. How much an influence was that harder edged version of country music on you?
Those artists have been a massive influence on me! Not only directly, but indirectly. For instance, the first time I heard the song Bottle Let Me Down was from Emmylou Harris’s album Pieces of the Sky. It wasn’t ‘til later that I heard Merle’s version. Dwight Yoakam is particularly inspiring because he’s done it all as an Angelino.
Who are your main influences past and present?
Too many country influences and heroes to name, but here’s a start: George Jones, Willie Nelson, Ray Benson, Don Williams, Keith Whitley, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam. Non-country influences would mainly be The Beatles I guess. But that’s probably the case for everyone.
At what point did you decide you wanted to play country as opposed to any other form of music and did you listen or play other styles previously?
When I first heard George Jones something just exploded in my head and heart. A few years later I decided to put a country band together and start playing my songs for people.
You have released your debut album on vinyl (though it is also available as a download). Was there a reason you decided to do that at this time?
Vinyl is the best. And even though it’s expensive and I figured very few people would buy the album or care that it’s on vinyl it just seemed like the right thing to do.
On your website there are several well-shot short videos that give an insight to Sam Outlaw. Do you see that as a vital medium for spreading the word?
Video can communicate and influence emotions better than any other medium. It’s the best way to tell a story that goes beyond the songs.
How conscious are you of creating a look, an image? Do you have experience in that area?
Look and feel is very important to me. Not so much to create an “image” but to create a larger environment for which people can enjoy the music and feel part of something fun and authentic. I’m learning as I go.
Are you a full time musician or do you need to create an income in other areas in order to fund your music?
I’m a full-time musician with a full-time job to pay the bills (and the band). Ha ha! It’s a lot of work but it’s important to me that my players are paid for each gig and that I don’t have to always rely on favours. Otherwise I’d be asking other people to suffer for my art and that gets old really fast.
What inspires you to continue to write and sing?
I suppose I’m most inspired by listening to great country music.
Do you fear for the future of the more traditional forms of the genre as Nashville pushes further towards pop and rap affiliations?
Another line from one of the videos is that you're just "a drifting cowboy looking for sushi" that seems to encompass the old and the new in one sentence. Is that something you're aiming for?
I aim to capture the spirit of country music in an authentic way - much like the “neo-traditionalists” of the 80s and 90s. George Strait records didn’t sound like Bob Wills records, no matter how much he might have wanted them to. Ha ha. I grew up in the 90s but the music I love is rooted in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It all mixes together in the end.
Where are you hoping to take your music from here?
My short term goals are to make a music video for a new single I’ve just recorded - then record a new album. Label backing would be nice as I’d like to hire the best pickers in the land. The bigger picture has really nothing to do with me though. What I want most is for more people to discover how good good country music really is and to enjoy it with me.