Sam Outlaw is well aware that his stage name will raise some eyebrows. “I know people were thinking, ‘What the hell is this? Is this guy for real?’” Outlaw says. But Outlaw is actually his mother’s maiden name—for real—and he credits her with giving him “the artistry part of my brain.” “My mom always encouraged me,” he says. “She unfortunately passed away a couple years ago.”
Outlaw says he didn’t know she was about to die. “It was unexpected. She called me up before I was about to leave on tour,” he explains. “She said she was proud of me and she thought it was cool I was using the Outlaw name, and she liked my music. A few days later my brother called me up and said she died.”
While it is a tribute to his mother, Outlaw knows it would have been just plain stupid not use the name as a country singer who happens to be on the fringe. “It gives me a chance to talk about my mom and honor her and remember her,” he says, before noting, “The name is more now than just a catchy thing.” The name certainly works in tandem with his Ry Cooder-produced debut album Angeleno, out June 9, which blends influences that come straight from being a country singer living in California. Outlaw describes his mix of honky tonk and mariachi as being “Southern California country music” and says it could only come from living in one place.
“Something distinctive about L.A., which you don’t get in other places of the country, is the influence of Mexican culture and Mexican music,” he says “I’ve tried to incorporate that as well. You’ll hear a couple tunes with mariachis. Ry Cooder channeled that as well, he understands that Mexican style.”
Outlaw met Cooder, the famed guitarist, composer and soundtrack producer, through his drummer Joachim, who just so happens to be Ry’s son. Originally, Outlaw had planned on self-producing his album, keeping it simple by using his iPhone, which he placed on his mantle. Lucky for him, that idea was soon squashed by Joachim, who had sent Outlaw’s songs to his father, who loved what he heard. Outlaw met Cooder, a huge country fan with an encyclopedic memory of music history, for breakfast and felt like he had found a soul mate. “It’s so cool I could talk to somebody about country music here in L.A.,” he gushes. “I was deeply thankful he wanted to produce it and play on it. One of the coolest things in the world was watching Ry Cooder walk into my living room and plug in his amp and sit down for band practice.”
At a recent concert in New York, Outlaw kicked off his set with the memorable “Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar).” Dressed in a cowboy hat, jeans and a vintage Garth Brooks tour T-shirt he recently found in Australia, he began the tongue-in-cheek country ballad on a serious note. By the time he got to the chorus, he had the audience laughing along. When asked about his performance, he swears that he has yet to hear Carrie Underwood‘s ACM Award-winning song Jesus Take the Wheel. “I just know that conservative Christian expression ‘God is my co-pilot,’” he says. “I was just writing a song because I heard that expression and I thought it was stupid, and I thought it would be funny and even more stupid to write a song about a guy who gets wasted and just wishes that Jesus takes the wheel and gets him safely home after drinking too much.”
Another song that gets at his wry sense of humor is Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink (And Fall in Love), where he sings about how whiskey can account for some very poor decisions. The video, featuring a cast of adorable little kids putting on a show for their stuffed animals, will also get a good chuckle. “The great thing about the country music genre is if you have any sense of humor it counts for something and you can incorporate that into songwriting.”
While putting laughs into his songwriting is one thing he hopes to get better at, another wish he has is that his music will help open the doors to country music discovery. “You can write catchy three-minute pop country songs. They don’t have to suck. They don’t have to sound like beer commercials, As much as I care about people knowing who I am because I have to make a living at this, if in any way this record helps spark anyone’s interest in country music that would mean a lot to me. I hope people who don’t know will discover how beautiful country music really is and can be.”