Sam Outlaw – the most underrated artist in country music. A bold statement, yes, but you won’t find many better debut albums than ‘Angeleno’, a thoroughly captivating, instantly loveable collection of authentic, infectious songs with Sam’s distinctive throwback ‘SoCal Country’ style. Whilst sifting through the countless releases, occasionally one really grabs my attention. It’s had such a profound influence on me musically, opening a world of underground Americana/roots that I had previously never explored. Since its release, I have been lucky enough to see Sam four times and am looking forward to his London show this Thursday (30/03), where he will be performing material from his upcoming album ‘Tenderheart’.
Inevitably, my expectations for this sophomore album were incredibly high. It was always a tough ask to follow such an immense debut, but Sam has delivered once again with 13 brand new tracks that will no doubt delight his growing legion of fans. You know exactly what you’re going to get from Sam (and that’s the way we like it) – easy listening, chilled-out Californian country with soft arrangements that take you away to another place for 45 minutes. Having worked with Ry Cooder on ‘Angeleno’, Sam decided to tackle the production side of things himself for this project, albeit with the help of engineer Martin Pradler.
First up is ‘Everyone’s Looking For Home’, a reflective look at the 2 years of touring since ‘Angeleno’ came out. It addresses the difficulty of balancing the obligations of life on the road with family commitments, particularly since the birth of his son Leo. Backed by simply an acoustic guitar, this is an incredibly atmospheric outpouring of emotion that builds and builds, peaking with the spine-tingling crescendo of horns and strings. It sets the standard for another consistently quality record.
‘Bottomless Mimosas’ is one of the clear stand-outs (available now with all album pre-orders). “You might get low, but you never will run out”. The Marty Stuart-esque guitar riff totally defines the track and adds such depth and warmth to a simply wonderful composition. A quirky look at the ‘brunch culture’ back in Sam’s home city that takes us right into a Californian bar, where the gossip and rumours flow and locals reflect on the mistakes of the night before. If you needed any persuading for my opening line of this review, stick this one on. Enjoy.
The standards are maintained with ‘Bougainvillea, I Think’, an angelic, melodically and lyrically innocent reminiscence of happy times with a long-lost neighbour, the name of whom escapes Sam. The flower she used to wear, picked from the garden wall, is the only lasting memory. “As I think about it now, it occurs to me. After all this time I can’t recall her name. But if I try, I might recall the name of the flower on that wall. Shades of purple, red and pink, Bougainvillea, I think”. A gorgeously-written song that brings a tear to the eye. This is followed by the wonderful title track ‘Tenderheart’, which sounds similar to ‘Old Fashioned’, a personal favourite from the previous album. This is a third-person perspective of a broken man at the bar who has faced the struggles of life. Having lost everything he had, he still has “a tender heart beating for you”. Another beautiful arrangement and a hard-hitting story that draws you in from the very start. Classic Sam Outlaw.
The early part of the album, as you will have guessed, is rather deep and personal, but ‘Tenderheart’ isn’t short of its fun moments. ‘Trouble’ sees Sam unleashing a rebellious side, falling in to the traps of an off-piste relationship – “you got me in trouble again…I try to be good but I just can’t. I must have sold my soul when I became your friend cos you got me in trouble again”. One of the album’s more instantly loveable tracks; great for the dance halls (do they exist any more?). The tempo is taken right down for the following track ‘She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of)’, which sounds like it could have been recorded 40/50 years ago – it’s as ‘throwback’ as it gets, a tribute to Sam’s old-fashioned country heritage whilst maintaining that tongue-in-cheek Sam Outlaw lyrical edge.
‘Two Broken Hearts’, ‘Diamond Ring’ and ‘Say It To Me’ are all instantly engaging tracks with infectious hooks that stick to your brain for the rest of the day. There’s no danger of Sam Outlaw going into experimental mode, this is a straight-up country record that plays right into the hands of his loyal fan base. ‘All My Life’ is like the sequel to ‘Hold Down In My Heart’, an up-tempo foot-tapper with alternating tempos that paints a fun picture of a couple wildly in love. “I’ve got all my life just to find a wife and you’ve got yours to find a man. But if you don’t mind I’d rather spend my time growing old together till we reach the end”. Another early favourite of mine and one that will inevitably become a mainstay in Sam’s live shows, much like the infectious ‘Dry In The Sun’.
As the album draws to a close, ‘Now She Tells Me’ adopts an exotic Mexican vibe with a soulful feel; a look at the trials of the trials and tribulations of a relationship, being in love with someone who plays with the mind but ultimately the love is always there. “I’ll break your spirit, I’ll steal your soul. But I’ll never leave your side…now she tells me”. It really gives the mariachi musicians a moment to shine. Then the final track on the album, ‘Look At You Now’, is an interesting cut as it’s a very raw audio clip. It’s almost like you’re sitting with Sam in a writing session, and it showcases his unbelievable talent just as it is, without any studio alterations. A very haunting, sombre composition exposing the damning, harsh reality of someone facing the consequences of their actions – “God isn’t really on your side, you just think he is. You can try to run but you can’t hide from those things you did. Look at you now”
Guaranteed a spot in our top 10 list at the end of the year, ‘Tenderheart’ is another stellar addition to Sam Outlaw’s repertoire. Whilst the Jason Aldeans and Luke Bryans of this world sell out arenas far and wide, Sam pleads with fans to stream ‘Bottomless Mimosas’ so he can “get some new tyres for the van”. I’m sure things aren’t that drastic for Sam in reality, but it makes you reflect on the sad state of the industry when it’s such a struggle for artists outside of that music row bubble. ‘Tenderheart’ should be a major hit album. This is country music, full of heart and soul. Nobody pulls it off quite like Sam Outlaw and he’s an artist that fans should be incredibly excited about.
Dan Wharton (@LifeInASong_Dan)