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L.A.'s Sam Outlaw Brings Country Cool To FitzGerald's Saturday

By Casey Moffitt in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 17, 2015 9:15PM

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Los Angeles is an unlikely place to nurture a career playing country music, but Sam Outlaw is out to buck the conventional wisdom by making a run at it with songs steeped in old ways and past fashion.

He's bringing his California country sound to FitzGerald's Saturday to support his debut full-length album, Angeleno. It's a fresh approach to old traditions as Outlaw successfully injects new energy into his emotionally charged songs.

"I guess I'm more on the revivalist side of things because I love traditional country music," Outlaw said. "Asleep at the Wheel was the first country band that I discovered and that's the band that I grew up with. From there I fell in love with George Jones and Emmylou Harris. But I'm not aping old music or making retro music. Ultimately, I love traditional country music and that's always going to be an influence. I'm not trying to force that traditionalism, but I've got some '60s pop country, some '80s neo-traditional and a little bit of '90s rock."

Angeleno also features some straight up honky tonk numbers like "It Might Kill Me", and it also has a couple of twists, including featuring Mariachi horn players in "Who Do You Think You Are?" or pumping a little soul into "Keep a Close Eye On Me."

"I'm making my own record and I want it to be fresh," Outlaw said. "I don't talk with a southern accent or anything. I don't want my personal presentation to be bogus."

Great country albums have been able to reach down into deep emotional waters, and this is an area where Angeleno really succeeds. Outlaw's songs range from sentimental to romantic to heartbreaking to humorous.

"There are serious songs on there and there are some goofy songs, too," Outlaw said. "The pedal steel guitar is such an emotional instrument and when you feature it, it really brings out some of the melodramatic sentiments of, you know, liquor, love and loss—the 'three Ls' of country music if you will. But I love all that melodramatic stuff."

Outlaw said he likes to bring a little bit of humor into his work. "Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar)" is a hilarious take on Christ acting as the drunk protagonist's designated driver.

"One of my biggest turn offs is the 'self-important artist,'" Outlaw said. "That doesn't mean I don't take my songwriting or my performing seriously. You can have some fun, or it gets boring really fast.

2015.07.17.outlawcvr.jpg "I don't try to force fun at my shows," he continued. "I don't try to get people clapping and shit like that. I hate it when people do it to me. But I do enjoy some stupid banter with the audience. I'm trying to enjoy the night, too. I'm not going to just play my songs and blow on out of there. I think that's what makes live music really memorable and different from just popping a CD in your car."

Trying to play this music in Los Angeles has been a challenge, Outlaw admits. There isn't much if a country scene. There aren't any country bars. And there are few other people there making the same kind of music. But there are fans of old-school country music and they've been coming to the shows.

"It really is an underground thing, but in a way that makes it more strong," he argued. "The people who play it and love it in Los Angeles are really passionate about it. There's a lot of country music history in L.A. Maybe things will blossom into what it was like in the '40s, '50s and '60s. I'm not holding my breath."

However, living there has given Outlaw's music some different influences in his music. He said the Mexican art, music and culture that's prevalent in the city has impacted his work, which differentiates his work from other country artists.

"I don't think this is an album that could have been made in Nashville," he said. "Angeleno is a moment in time with those players, but also you're not going to get Mariachis up to Nashville."

But when it came to get a bit more serious and find people to help him cut an album, things got a little bit more challenging.

"The first thing I had to figure out was who to get to produce a country record," he said. "Finding someone with an understanding of that heartbeat that makes country music really work is hard to find in L.A."

However, being one of the few country acts in Los Angeles, Outlaw caught the ear of roots music legend Ry Cooder, who agreed to produce the album as well as help the artist find more like-minded musicians to fill out his sound. Some are Outaw's friends, like Bo Koster of My Morning Jacket and Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith. Cooder himself plays on the album as well as his son, Joachim, on drums.

"Obviously Joachim and Ry have that natural chemistry when they play together, and to see them look at each other while they're playing in the same room is special," Outlaw said. "I think we really got it to sound like people getting together in a room, you know, friends hanging out and making music."

In a way, being outside of the traditional epicenters of country music helped his career, but it still can be a bit frustrating, Outlaw said.

"I'm still a nobody and I got to make a record with Ry Cooder," he said. "Sometimes it seems like it's not worth it [being in L.A.], but it can be gratifying to play country where nobody else is doing it. So many people come up to us and say, 'I hate country music, but I love your songs.' So it can be a way to make country fans out of people who think they hate country music."

And in case you're wondering, Outlaw is not his birth surname. That's Morgan, but Outlaw is his mother's maiden name.

"When I first took it, I thought it was catchy and it sounded like a country singer," he said. "But since my mother passed away, it's taken a new meaning for me as a way to carry on her legacy."

Sam Outlaw performs with Webb Wilder on Saturday, July 18, at FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn, 9 p.m. Saturday July 18. $15.

Outlaw returns July 28 to perform at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston, $10-$18.