Two years ago, Sam Outlaw released his debut record, Angeleno. The project was one of the first in years to represent a new era of California country, mixing traditional songwriting with mariachi and catchy pop hooks. Now, he's gearing up to release Tenderheart, a new LP that expands his sound even further.
Fans of Outlaw's previous record will find an impressive mixture of honky-tonk ready tracks like the infectious single "Trouble." But Outlaw also takes a deeper dive into heartfelt storytelling that transcends most genre definitions. Instead of focusing on making a great country record, Outlaw is simply making music that tips its cap to his own varied influences.
"[The album] kind of has a soft rock feel to it," Outlaw tells Wide Open Country . "In the early 90s, Vince Gill was making soft rock that was just called country, and that was my favorite."
"I know there's going to be people that are going to talk shit on at least a couple songs on this record because it's not country enough for them. Or unlike me, they don't think Bryan Adams is cool, or they don't think soft rock is cool or whatever," he continues. "But fuck 'em, because I love that shit."
In fact, the album's title track feels more like a Bryan Adams b-side than a boot scootin' boogie, but that's intentional.
"There's really nothing about 'Tenderheart' that you could call a country song," he explains. "But that's just me. Whatever music I'm gonna like, I'm gonna make it. And if it's not country enough for them, then they can just not listen to it."
But if country fans opt out of Tenderheart, they'll miss one of the most impressive releases of the year so far. The record is more of a slow burn than its predecessor, taking listeners through a journey of small but memorable markers in life. The wistful tune "Bougainvillea, I Think" features dreamy accompaniment that looks back at a simple friendship from the past. The sense of longing for days gone by, emerged from the simple sight of a flower, immediately evokes a poignant and relatable feeling.
"I knew I wanted to write a song about bougainvilleas because they are all over Southern California," he recalls. "I woke up in bed next to my wife and this song just kind of popped into my head and I just started crying."
Outlaw's ability to tap into human emotion, from the bitter end of a relationship to a simple fleeting memory, is what makes his songs shine. That's also earned him a dedicated fan base, who've gotten to know songs like "All My Life" as standards of his live shows months before the release of Tenderheart.
"I think that's kind of cool, when people get familiar with a song live," Outlaw says. "Everyone asks me about that song, along with 'Diamond Ring,' almost every time after we play a show. So it was high time we got them properly recorded for a release."
Angeleno came out a time when many country fans and critics were searching for a savior from the pop sound of the Top 40. And although many may selfishly want Outlaw to be their modern Merle from Bakersfield, he's just focused on staying himself. Even if that means going against the grain of what some may think country singers should sound, act or look like.
"I stopped wearing my Stetson as much on stage because I sweat so much," he says. "People come up to me after the show and are like, 'So dude, why aren't you wearing your hat?' As though they can't feel like they are at a country show unless I'm wearing a cowboy hat. Everyone has these aesthetic touch points that they look to to feel like they are having the experience they want."
Even with its quirks, Outlaw is vocal about his appreciation for those fans who stand by him and his art.
"I really do feel thankful. It's insane when you are playing a show in Denver and people will be like, 'Yeah we couldn't make it to Denver the other week so we flew out to New York.' What?! That's the kind of stuff that just blows my mind."
That's not to say that touring isn't sometimes straining. In the two years since Angeleno was released, Outlaw has spent most of his time on the road. It's been a challenge to balance the mental strain of living in a cramped van along with being a husband and a new father.
"It's one of the hardest things ever," he admits."I've pretty much been on tour the last two years, and we had [our son] Leo 10 months ago. For most of my touring experience, I've had a pregnant wife or a very little baby. All of this is very new and insane. I've learned a lot about myself and what I need when I'm on tour to make sure I don't lose my own mind."
The video for "Everyone's Looking For Home" also features home movies of his wife Andie and their young son.
"I've made a rule that I never want to be away from my wife for more than two weeks straight," he says. "She's the sweetest person, she probably believes in me even more than I do."
Although this new album brings with it new challenges and personal endeavors, Outlaw says staying centered and keeping things fresh is the key to supplying a great show, no matter how tired or lonely you are.
"You've got to find a way to keep yourself pumped. It's not always easy and you can't only be thinking to yourself, 'What are the fans expecting?' More than anything, what the fans really want - whether they know it or not - is to see an artist who is excited about his own art."
Sam Outlaw's sophomore album Tenderheart drops today, April 14. You can find a full list of his upcoming tour dates via his official website.