By Steve Baltin
Photos by Greyland
Though born in South Dakota, Sam Outlaw has been the rare Southern California-based country artist since beginning his recording career in 2015 with Angeleno. Though Southern California has a much stronger country scene than some might expect -- it's the home of Stagecoach and Luke Bryan sold out Dodger Stadium there this past year -- it probably was only a matter of time before Outlaw made the move to Nashville this year .
That is where Greyland starts its conversation with Outlaw, who fills us in on making his third album, due next spring, and the transitional nature of life on the road and how it influences the new music. It's part of a wide-ranging conversation about politics, music and Aretha Franklin.
Greyland: Where are you now?
Sam Outlaw: We just got a place in Nashville. So I spent most of my time in L.A., I’ll probably keep making music there. We moved here [to Nashville] in June, although I’ve been kind of gone, it's hard to feel like my new home is even my home yet. We got a place in East Nashville, just had our second baby and we are nesting if you will, in a home that has space. It’s such a trip to be able to afford a home with actual rooms in it.
Greyland: I’m a big believe in how environments effect writing and recording. How has being in the two places affected your music?
Sam: A big theme on the new album is middle ground, and transition. Whether that's physical or emotional transition, even having some nuance in your belief structure. Now that I’ve been a full time touring musician for three and a half years so much of my life has been in a van, a hotel or a plane and I think that starts to become the new normal. Where being home in your living room starts to feel foreign, so I think the lifestyle defiantly influences your state of mind and what you write about. The new album, yet to be titled, has a lot of songs about transition and being in a state of flux. Traveling can sometimes keep you in a strange state of flux where you don’t feel here or there.
Greyland: Are there songs that seem to be about finding that middle ground?
Sam: Yeah, one of the songs I called “Stay The Night.” Most people will think it's about a romantic entanglement. But here it’s about delay, or pause. It's a song about finding peace amidst the darkness, and finding peace when you can’t see what's fully around you or know the next step. I think that song is a particular standout to me, something that's really about having to grow as a person. When we’re younger we cling to things that bring a sense of security. Then after a while when you find out you’ve chosen a lifestyle that doesn’t provide that, you need to reprogram. So for me I’ve been to therapy and meditation, those have been really helpful in finding peace amidst an environment that doesn’t provide security, light or answers.
Greyland: It’s such a divisive time, regardless of your political affiliation, music takes on an important role, even if you’re not political there's still a matter of providing a relief for audiences.
Sam: Yeah, whenever there's a season of intensified political narrative in pop culture I think it’s good for us. I myself don’t get too political. I would prefer a well-written song about something shallow more than a poorly crafted song with an important message. I tend to cringe at these attempts at an idealistic narrative, or kind of a virtue signaling narrative meant to will bend listeners. Similar to pop country on the radio, the song isn’t about a truck or a girl in short shorts, the problem is the song sucks. If you can write a great politically charged song, great, that's what the world needs. But I think a shitty song with an important message is just a shitty song with an important message. I’m still so sophomoric in my songwriting that I use it as a form of self therapy. I’m not sitting down going “this song is going to reach people with this message,” but for folks that want to do that I think that's a great thing. I think what the world needs, now and forever is good art. I’m amazed to see how much folks yell back and forth at each other, no one's really reaching anyone, they’re just yelling at each other.
Greyland: Talk about the role of music in getting people to stop yelling at each other.
Sam: It’s strange, I don’t know if music has a role. I do feel that I’m lucky I’m in the place where if I write and record a song people will listen to it. With that, I definitely don’t sit down and think “what do I want to say to these people?” Let’s say I was a much more famous pop star and I knew that if I recorded a song it would be heard by millions of people. At that point you say to yourself, you have this responsibility now to reach millions of people with this message. I just think that when you start going at it with that sort of intention it distracts from the aesthetic and the intentionality of the song. There’s so many shitty songs popping up with this important message, because someone's sitting down not saying I want to make good art, but, I have this thing to say. I think there are other venues that are more effective in public discourse, like simply speaking, or writing an essay.
Greyland: What are examples to you of music doing that well?
Sam: I was on tour in Europe when Aretha Franklin passed away. We started thinking about the persons career and life and there's so much music, she was so talented. We thought we should do one of her hits. We did “Natural Woman.” That song really doesn’t have that much of a message other than, I was feeling blue, you came along and now I feel great. When I was singing that song, with my band backing me up, I got goose bumps every single night. The message of that song is not politically important, but the artistic value of that message of I was not feeling good and then I met you and I feel good, is as important today as it has ever been, and the effectiveness of that message because of the song itself, changes lives. If you make good art with no message, you can change lives. I don’t know if the opposite is true. My favorite quote is “If you want to tell the truth, you better make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” That so perfectly sums up the presentation you’re making. I don’t know if my role is anything beyond making simple pop songs, but I think simple pop songs can forever change people's lives in a good way.
Greyland: Who is the greatest political songwriter of all time? Who are those artists who are able to deliver messages and make them universal, be it political or not political?
Sam: I think one of the things that drove me to country music was the simplicity of the narrative. I feel bad, I feel sad, there's no fucking hope, there's no optimism, I love that about country music. Roger Miller is one of my all time favorites. He has silly, hilarious songs like “Chug-a-lug,” and “King of the Road,” they’re so simple. Roger Miller to me is one of the all time best songwriters. John Prine is another one, the simplicity of his words, and his message is so beautiful. A song like “Illegal Smile,” you don’t want to overtly say you’re stoned, so you say illegal smile, that's pure genius Hank Williams writes very very very simple songs about drinking, loving and getting depressed. I don’t know if there's anything to it beyond those simple things. I was in East Africa in 2006 for a few months a friend of mine brought me out there to help with a music therapy project. With children who had been effected by the civil war, she used music therapy to ease the trauma of children effected by war. I had the privilege of recording a John Lennon song "Happy Xmas (War is Over)". Hearing those kids sing those words was very special to me. That song is incredible, he’s basically saying “It’s Christmas, and everything’s great for you, but what about all these other people where Christmas is just another day where they’d go to war?” That's pretty simple, that's pretty awesome.
Greyland: How do you hear all of your influences and themes come together in your next record?
Sam: I think the influences that I’m seeing are someone who used to have a very normal life being thrown into a very strange life, being a touring musician is weird. Going from this place of security, waking up every day with an agenda to having a kind of, choose your own adventure every day, on top of that getting married and having kids, I don’t have any songs in this that are overtly about fatherhood. The lifestyle of being a touring musician, it’s this horrible and wonderful thing. I think that processing it a little bit is what's coming out. I grew up in a conservative Christian home where there's an answer for everything. Good things are good, bad things are bad. I grew up and found out that the black and white stuff isn’t so clear. Maybe it's more our job to find some contentment in not figuring it out and not expect other people to have it all figured out either. The main things I’m saying in these songs is growth.
Greyland: When is the record coming out?
Sam: I’m aiming for next spring. March or April.