What kind of name is Sam Outlaw? I imagine that’s the reaction when people first hear of this new country artist. It’s not his real name, only his artist name. His real name is Sam Morgan and he got the idea for the name “Outlaw” because his mother’s maiden name was this. His mother has passed away now and he says he uses the name to honor her memory. Up until his 30th birthday in 2009, Outlaw was just a normal, everyday guy who worked in advertising. It was this birthday that signified an “existential crisis moment” that spurred him to ditch his day job and purse his true passion, which is making music. His self-released EP in 2014 caught several people’s attention and landed him spots at the Stagecoach Festival and Americana Fest. It also caught the attention of Ry Cooder, who asked to produce and play on Outlaw’s debut album. The album was made in North Hollywood and features a variety of talent, including Bo Koster of My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Gabe Witcher of The Punch Brothers, Andrew McCuller and Joachim Cooder. The album is called Angeleno and was released through Toronto-based Six Shooter Records, who Outlaw signed with in March and became the first American act signed to the label. So what did I think of this debut from Outlaw? I absolutely love it.
“Who Do You Think You Are?” is the lead single and first track of the album. And it’s a fantastic way to catch the listeners’ attention. It’s a love song that sets the mood perfectly with the sweeping horns throughout it accompanied by light acoustic guitar play. Outlaw’s voice suits it perfectly. This is one of my favorite songs on the album. Then again I love the next track, “Keep It Interesting,” just as much. The song is about how a couple vows to keep their love strong and to keep it interesting, which can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. Again the instrumentation is great, with plenty of fiddle and pedal steel guitar. Speaking of pedal steel guitar, there’s plenty of it on “I’m Not Jealous” too. It’s about a man who finds out from his friends that his woman is cheating on him and on top of that she tells him he’s the jealous type. But he refutes this and says he’s really just embarrassed for her, as he thinks she’s making herself to look like a fool. It’s a refreshing take on the break-up/cheating song. Outlaw sings of love again on “Love Her for a While.” He knows he is in love with his woman, but it’s a complicated thing to explain he says. But he just knows it’s something he can feel deep down in his heart and something he experiences when he’s around her. He knows it’s something much bigger than the average relationship. It’s a simple song that Outlaw delivers well.
The album’s title track is again another love song from Outlaw. Now a lot of albums I would probably complain about this constant love theme, but Outlaw just delivers every time and you forget about every song having the same theme. He simply gets love songs. As for “Angeleno,” it has a Western/desperado theme to it that makes it one of the best on the album. “Country Love Song” is about Outlaw being on the road all the time working and missing his love back home. He writes her that he wishes he could send her a country love song to show how much he loves her and how he wishes he was coming back home to be with her. Now this may seem corny on paper, but the heart and emotion behind not just the lyrics, but Outlaw’s voice makes it work brilliantly.
The arguably best song on the album is “Ghost Town.” What makes it so great is how the instrumentation, lyrics and Outlaw’s vocals just go together perfectly. It’s a song about a guy on the road trying to get back home and passing through ghost towns. The past of both the towns and the guy are reflected on throughout the song, giving the song a haunting feeling. This is one you need to hear for yourself. Outlaw’s heart has been broken and he’s looking to fix it by drinking the pain away on “Jesus Take The Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar).” First off I’m glad to hear another drinking song where the singer admits he shouldn’t drive drunk (Jon Pardi’s “Drinkin’ With Me” is the other). Second the piano play throughout this song gives it an old Western feel to it, which is a nice touch. While this isn’t the best drinking song I’ve heard this year, this is still a pretty good drinking song.
Heartache and pain is the theme again on “It Might Kill Me.” Outlaw is struggling to move on from a bad breakup and can’t seem to get his ex off of his mind. Everyone tells him it will get better and there are brighter days ahead, but his mind is still on the painful past and doesn’t know if he can move on with his life. Once again Outlaw nails the emotion of a song. “Keep a Close Eye on Me” upon first listen seems like a filler song, but it would be unwise to overlook this song. It really feels like a prologue to “It Might Kill Me,” as Outlaw grapples with mortality and accomplishing your goals in life. It’s an intriguing song and you take from it what you hear from it. In other words, the deeper you listen to it the more you appreciate it.
“Old Fashioned” is a song about a man having an old-fashioned love for his woman, something that is implied to be missing in today’s world. I can’t say the song is wrong. It should also be mentioned there is plenty of steel guitar in this song. While this is one of my lesser favorites on the album, I think this is still a pretty solid love song. Angeleno closes out with the up-tempo “Hole Down In My Heart.” Outlaw sings of having his heart-broken by a woman and how he wonders how she could do something like this to him. He still admits that she is his baby, but acknowledges her cruelty and callousness towards him. It’s a short, little love song that closes out this brilliant album nicely.
Sam Outlaw’s Angeleno is the album I thought I never wanted to hear this year until I heard it. When you see the name Outlaw you immediately think it would be outlaw country music. But instead it’s the sound that preceded it. This album is very much in the vein of the Nashville/countrypolitan sound that was popular in the mid to late 50s (Outlaw refers to his music as “SoCal country”). While many love to romanticize the outlaw and Bakersfield sound (I do it too), the countrypolitan sound can be just as great as long as it’s in the right hands. Outlaw clearly understands it and knows how to make it sound great. This is one hell of a debut for the Californian and I’m excited to hear more from him. Angeleno is absolutely phenomenal and I highly recommend checking it out. Don’t let a name stop you from checking out one of the best of the year.