On his 2015 debut album Angeleno, country singer-songwriter Sam Outlaw mixed downcast neo-traditional country tunes like “Jesus Take the Wheel (and Drive Me to a Bar)” with the upbeat roots rock of cuts like “Keep It Interesting,” all in a voice eerily reminiscent of the late Gram Parsons. The name might seem a little too on the nose, but Outlaw is his mother’s real maiden name, not a notice of an affinity for gunslingers and stoners. The singer’s choice to base himself in Los Angeles (after quitting a promising office job there to play music at 30) is intriguing as well, since many people still peg country as a music for middle and southern America. They’re wrong, though: California has been a powerful force in country music from the Western swing of the ’40s and ’50s through Merle Haggard and Buck Owens’s 1960s Bakersfield movement and beyond. The SoCal audience is now large enough to keep tickets to West Coast concert titans Goldenvoice’s post-Coachella country showcase Stagecoach Festival selling out every year.
The rich history of Cali roots music lives on in Outlaw’s new album, Tenderheart, out April 14, on Six Shooter Records. The set was recorded in the San Fernando Valley and is steeped in the country-folk birthed in nearby Laurel Canyon in the ’70s. “Bougainvillea, I Think” fondly recalls afternoon chats with an old neighbor over an airy bed of acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and bass — purity and quietude mingling like Mud Slide Slim–era James Taylor. “Bottomless Mimosas” stages an existential crisis at an all-you-can-drink brunch and treats the restaurant’s wellspring of alcohol like a metaphor for perseverance, as Outlaw doffs his cap toward the Eagles: “Wonder if there’s meaning in the peaceful easy feeling that takes all the blues away.” His eye for the subtle gravity of small moments continues through deep cuts like “Dry in the Sun,” where simple laundry instructions (“Let ’em dry in the sun, let ’em hang for awhile”) double as stern advice for raising a kid.
Tenderheart’s quiet songs squeeze interest out of seemingly mundane activities, but it’s the new album’s comfortable range that makes Angeleno look like a practice run by comparison. Mariachi brass adds a touch of color to both “Mimosas” and opener “Everyone’s Looking for Home.” The title track is a slow-burning country-rock sing-along as grounded and powerful as Ryan Adams gems like “Everybody Knows,” while “Trouble” ramps up the energy with a shock of rousing drums and easy, repeating lyrics that pay quiet homage to ’80s Heartland rock. Tenderheart is the sound of Angeleno’s budding artist finding his voice and crafting a work as great as his killer country nom de plume. Two years after shaking his life up to chase a dream of country stardom, Sam Outlaw is sitting on one of the genre’s best albums of the year. It’s never too late to heed your calling.