Let’s get this out of the way: Sam Outlaw’s real name isn’t Sam Outlaw. The bills mailed to his Glendale apartment are addressed to “Sam Morgan.” “Outlaw” is a nom de guitar selected after he quit his ad-sales job to pursue his dream of making “country music that doesn’t suck.”
For some, that’s a deal breaker. In every article about Outlaw — who plays the Stagecoach festival this Saturday — it’s the 800-pound gorilla in a 10-gallon hat. But it’s his way of aligning himself with the outlaw country popularized by George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard.
“I know some people are like, ‘Fuck this guy, he’s coming out of L.A. using the name Outlaw,” Outlaw says at a diner in Eagle Rock, wearing dark sunglasses, black shoes and jeans and a denim jacket.
“I’ve had so many people, young and old, come up after the shows to say, ‘We talked shit on your name, then we came out and really liked your songs,’” Outlaw says, jokingly adding, “I may have cock-blocked myself a little with the Outlaw name.”
The Outlaw moniker isn’t just a nod to his forebears. It’s also the maiden name of Morgan’s mother, who died shortly after he adopted it. Her death imbued it with an enhanced gravity and made his use of it a tribute to her South Dakota cowboy lineage.
His music stifles any lingering skepticism. Outlaw’s debut, last year’s Angeleno, boasted production and guitar lines from roots legend Ry Cooder, and other backing from Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes). The star was Outlaw himself, who could go from ghostly to gritty on a minute-by-minute basis. His lyrics were wry and the production was ornate but unvarnished; it spit on the modern Nashville glossy.
Angeleno made him a legitimate contender to be the biggest country star L.A. has produced since Dwight Yoakam.
“I’m not saying I’m a badass, but I definitely fight a lot of shit internally,” Outlaw says. He drives and speaks fast, with a slight recklessness. He’s garrulous and self-deprecating, one of those people you immediately like because he’s so up front about his opinions, problems and personal history.
After spending his early years in South Dakota, Outlaw and his religiously devout parents moved to Poway, a San Diego suburb better known for producing Blink-182 than anything remotely twangy.
Apart from an Asleep at the Wheel album that his father loved, the adolescent Outlaw’s musical education consisted of mostly Brit-pop and random radio songs. Not until his late 20s — when both his parents’ and his own marriage simultaneously crumbled — did Outlaw discover the Highwaymen gospel.
”I actually remember sitting on my porch drinking whiskey and listening to George Jones crying,” Outlaw says, removing his shades and placing them on the Formica tabletop, revealing glacial blue eyes. He has the kind of face that you’d expect to see in a Marlboro ad from an old magazine.
The true epiphany arrived slightly over three years ago. Outlaw rented out a Silver Lake bar for his 30th birthday and woke up the next morning to realize that he was living the wrong life.
He kept working to pay the bills but wrote demos every night, landed opening gigs and eventually killed a Nashville showcase that won him representation.
“I didn’t think music meant I’d live my dreams, because all my friends were musicians and they were all poor, screwed and depressed,” Outlaw says. “But I thought maybe I could move in a general direction of what my dreams could be. I know that’s not something catchy you put on a poster, but that’s what I’ve been doing since.”
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Saw Outlaw plays the Stagecoach Festival on Saturday, April 30.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.