Outside of the trucks and the girls and the beer, country music is, at its core, music for sad people. Since the beginning, songs like Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” were written with the plain intent of helping Middle America deal with its social, economic, and (of course) romantic heartbreak. For whatever reason, though, the sappy love songs and devastating post-incarceration laments have all but disappeared in recent years, replaced with Fireball-drenched nonsense like Sam Hunt’s withering “Body Like a Backroad.”
But then there’s Sam Outlaw, the California cowboy with a rugged name that belies his subdued and subtle West Coast country aesthetic. Last Friday, Outlaw released his sublimely sad sophomore album Tenderheart (Six Shooter Records/Thirty Tigers), a meditation on life, love, and the complications of intimacy that covers a broken heart from pretty much all angles. It’s a remarkable effort, one that may catapult Outlaw to the alt-country stardom he deserves.
In 2015, after the release of his debut Angeleno, many country critics thought that Sam Outlaw was poised to become the next big thing in country music, but perhaps it wasn’t his time just yet. With songs like “Jesus Take The Wheel (And Drive Me To A Bar)” and the album’s beautifully brooding title track, it seemed like Outlaw was really living up to his name and producing country music that was decidedly left of mainstream. But with Tenderheart, Outlaw dials in that dreamy, Laurel Canyon-inspired sound to produce a devastatingly good extension of what he kicked off with Angeleno.
From the first notes of “Everyone’s Looking For Home,” Outlaw sets the tone and lets you know real quick to grab the tissues. From the chorus, it’s clear that he's grown into quite the sage for an early-thirties singer-songwriter, serving up life observations and a few nuggets of solid advice. “So if you find yourself but you still feel restless, it’s ‘cause everyone’s lookin’ for home,” he warbles over a sparse and syrupy tune dotted with just enough of mariachi horns and pedal steel. Vocally, Sam Outlaw has that delightfully whiny tinge to his timbre (see: Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan et al.) that makes him exactly the right kind of guy to sing sad love songs.
Tenderheart plays like an album written by a historian or scholar, smartly winding its way through a catalog of all-star influences like Buck Owens and Graham Nash and Merle Haggard. The arrangement of songs like “She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of)” and “Look At You Now” stick to Outlaw’s carefully honed formula, avoiding any superfluousness or saccharine homages to those who made the way for modern California country. The result is a deceptively effortless, eminently listenable sound.
He also deftly manages to sidestep a problem that is plaguing even country music’s best artists at the moment: overproduction. Tenderheart feels true to Outlaw’s talents all the way through. This is best on display with “Look at You Now,” which is so raw and stripped down that it sort of sounds like it was recorded in Outlaw’s bathroom, at least at the start. All voice and guitars up until the end, the song culminates with a gorgeous (if slightly more refined) finish, polished up with a little steel guitar and quiet picking.
And maybe there are moments where the sadness seems a little too overwhelming for an album with a name like Tenderheart. On Angeleno, Outlaw was decidedly more sonically adventurous and more experimental with tempo. There are moments where this album feels a little too plodding and desperately in need of a little bit of energy. But, as you likely well know, that’s kind of exactly how it feels when a heart’s been broken.
With this album, Outlaw takes his place at the top of a growing pack of California-inspired country artists that brings a unique contrast to the current world of country. In recent years, the explosive growth of Americana as a genre has given a more sonically diverse crop of artists than ever a home. Now, it’s time for the alt-country troubadours and folk-rockers to make way for this breezy, laid-back modernization (of sorts) of the Bakersfield sound.
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Along with Sam Outlaw, artists like Jon Pardi (whose “Dirt On My Boots” currently sits at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart) and Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett (whose rollicking, '90s-inspired rocker West Coast Town was released on Friday) are revitalizing California country. It’s a promising trend, one that poses an interesting threat to the wavering dominance of Nashville.
If Texas country is a little too rough around the edges for the mainstream and alt-country is a little too edgy, guys like Sam Outlaw offer an eminently listenable alternative. There’s no listening to songs like “Say It to Me” and “Bougainvillea, I Think” and confusing them with the kind of ignorant backwoods BS that makes popular country so cringe-worthy for many fans at the moment.
In all, Tenderheart is a tremendous effort from Sam Outlaw, who continues to prove that he is one of country’s most promising new acts. But considering the massive slate of new music expected in the coming months, including albums from Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Loretta Lynn, a lesser album might have found him lost in the shuffle — again.
Fortunately, Outlaw’s sophomore effort is just smart enough and just subdued enough to emerge as one of country’s biggest breakout albums of the year. It’s got the potential to attract tons of crossover fans, please the purists, and maybe even launch a radio-friendly hit or two into the mix. What exactly that means for country music’s current climate remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure — the next few months are going to be huge for Sam Outlaw.