Since the release of his brilliant 2015 album Angeleno, Sam Outlaw has been known as one of Americana's ambassadors to the SoCal country sound. His records feature flourishes of mariachi music, tender and introspective musings (his sophomore album is called Tenderheart, after all) and sweeter country songs than his hell-raising surname would suggest. (Outlaw is his mother's maiden name.)
But before the release of Outlaw's new EP Hat Acts (out on May 3), the singer made the move to Nashville to provide a more stable life for his growing family and he admits that he initially suffered a bit of an identity crisis.
"I was pretty aware that a lot of my identity as a songwriter and as a singer was 'The California Kid' and Southern California, which is fine. I think I was kind of worried that I would lose my specialness. [Then I was] like 'Okay, that's fine. Who fucking cares? Take care of your family. Your priorities are taking care of your family, not your press story'," Outlaw says. "So I think it was just what we needed to take care of us."
Recorded in Nashville and Southern California, Hat Acts features witty, self-referential skits, similar to those used by hip hop artists like De La Soul and more recently Kendrick Lamar, that provide a snapshot of scenes in the life of a musician. For example: getting hassled for wearing a cowboy hat in L.A., painfully awkward Uber rides and country music's seemingly never-ending authenticity debate.
"I almost called the EP '2010' because in some ways the little jokes and the moments that happen to my character in the skits, it's all stuff that I experienced around 2009, 2010," Outlaw says. "There weren't a lot of guys wearing western hats in Los Angeles. There's more now, but I remember I got my first cowboy hat, I think, in 2010. I would wear it out to bars and people thought I was having a quarter life crisis. People that knew me thought I was losing my mind," Outlaw says. "Women would use it as an ice breaker...But also dudes would make fun of me."
Outlaw's path to a country music career is unconventional. He quit his job in advertising at the age of 33 to play music full time ("That's usually something people do at 23, not 33," he says). And while he grew up loving traditional country music, country bands were few in far between in mid-aughts Southern California. Undeterred, Outlaw visited a string shop in Long Beach to find a pedal steel player and started booking country gigs in 2009.
Since then, he's played California's Stagecoach Festival, worked with the legendary Ry Cooder and earned a nomination for Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2017 Americana Music Awards. Now he's on the cusp of perhaps the greatest milestone of all. On May 3, Outlaw will make his Grand Ole Opry debut.
"Nothing makes you feel more like 'Holy crap, does this mean I'm a real country singer now?'," Outlaw says. "I'm very much hoping I can just be present and enjoy it and be in a spirit of humility -- thanking God for how cool it is that I get to be a part of this tradition that has been a huge part of why I even play music."
Outlaw's debut in the Opry's revered circle is a full circle moment in itself. Not only did Opry serve as a catalyst for his country music dreams, but the show was also a soundtrack to his love story with his wife, Andie.
"When Andie and I first started dating, it was basically just me going over to her house. I had this box set of Grand Ole Opry DVDs. They were hosted by Marty Stuart. She loved country music, so we would just put in these DVDs of classic Grand Ole Opry performances from the '50s, '60s and '70s...The early classic stuff," Outlaw says. "We would just sit there on our couch and drink whiskey and watch Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn."
Hat Acts traces the events of a night out, from the longing of the unrequited love lament, "Cigarette," to the rollicking "Shake a Heartache," which Outlaw calls his "homage to '90s country." Album closer "Humility" captures the self-reflection that comes when sobering up at the end of the night.
Outlaw says the song was partially inspired by his own struggles with self doubt. The frequently self-deprecating Outlaw says moving to Nashville was kind of like "moving into a small little high school where I'm not the head quarter back. I'm probably on the bench."
"I'm unfortunately a narcissist. Actually, my therapist says I'm not a narcissist because a narcissist would never say they're a narcissist. But I just think she's wrong," Outlaw jokes. "So I totally struggle with all the same stuff that a lot of folks struggle with in terms of feeling competitive, feeling like someone else got something that you didn't get. It's so hard to only see the stuff you're not getting. No matter how things go in your career, all the milestones. For me, unfortunately my personality can so quickly go to that negative side."
With a new EP under his belt and a lifelong dream achieved, it's clear that the Cali kid is right where he belongs.
"When we first moved (to Nashville), I struggled to know where my place was," Outlaw says. "At the end of the day I have to just go 'Okay, I don't really know. That's alright. Just keep writing songs.'"