“I used be one of those people who would say, ‘Anything but country,’ when someone would ask, ‘What do you listen to?’”
Sam Morrow says this sheepishly, wearing a denim jacket and old-style cowboy hat — guitar just a few feet away. It’s several hours before he plays the Honkytonk Hacienda night at El Cid in Silver Lake.
He’s only 24, but it’s been a long evolution from opiate addiction to urban cowboy. Growing up in Houston, the son of a financial adviser and a housewife, he was inundated with radio country at its glossiest. A one-time star baseball catcher, Morrow also discovered music through the Southern Methodist church his family belonged to.
After quitting sports his sophomore year, he got heavy into drugs and the music that often accompanied them: chopped and screwed Houston rap and EDM. He paid for the habit by selling product.
“I hated country. I just didn’t identify,” he says, shrugging, sipping water and occasionally pulling on a vape cigarette. Remove the hat and he could pass for any lightly bearded denizen of Silver Lake or his home neighborhood, Venice. “There’s nothing I dislike more than pop songs that say nothing.”
A failed attempt at engineering school compounded the problems. Lots of Xanax, drinking and blackouts ensued.
About 4 1/2 years ago, Morrow bottomed out and headed to rehab in Palm Springs. As he recovered, his natural impulses steered him toward more introspective and vulnerable songwriting. For the first time, he discovered Sturgill Simpson, Little Feat, Willie Nelson, Drive-By Truckers and Buck Owens.
“When I got sober, I started writing whatever lyrics came out of me … just regurgitating onto paper what didn’t even make much sense,” Morrow says. “It was stuff I had to get out of my head, or else it would just spin around up there. It became about telling stories as honestly as I could … all the stuff that I’d seen.”
He seems slightly apologetic that he’s not the tobacco-spitting redneck of cliché — even joking that he’s kind of a hipster. Yet he radiates the sincerity of the converted. If country music sprang up out of folk and rural songs of sorrow, Morrow’s lived through enough tumult to give his take on the genre a vivid sense of purpose.
Besides, this isn’t Toby Keith twang. Morrow’s excellent September album, There Is No Map, lands closer to the alternative country and outlaw Americana of Steve Earle and Uncle Tupelo. It might not naturally slip into what you’d hear at a beachfront bar, but it fits nicely into an oft-overlooked niche of L.A. history.
Back when the San Fernando Valley was semirural, the Palomino in North Hollywood hosted a constellation of country stars. The Byrds and Gram Parsons discovered rodeo sweethearts out West. Even today, the Honkytonk Hacienda, Grand Ole Echo and the Cowboy Palace in Chatsworth remind you that L.A. is only 110 miles from Bakersfield.
Rather than take the obvious route and head to saturated Nashville, Morrow wisely figured that being in L.A. would allow him to stand out. He might’ve only adopted the sound a few years ago, but his approach artfully blends pedal steel and Southern-fried keys with psychedelic rock, gospel and classic rock. He’s sober but still references parties full of whiskey and cocaine. It’s modern country that makes sense in a metropolis.
“I’m still looking for something. I’m not sure what it is and I don’t know if I need to find it,” Morrow muses. “I’m happy to keep searching, trying to be as genuine as I can along the way.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.