Sam Outlaw Angeleno
Six Shooter Records/Thirty Tigers #SIX 094
like my twang straight up. I was born two hours northeast of Amarillo, Texas, and listened to a whole lot of George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Buck Owens in the cab of a pickup truck. When I turn on a country station today, I'm reminded of how my Grandpa referred to people who lacked substance. He'd shake his head and say, "All hat, no cattle." So you can imagine what I thought when the cover of Sam Outlaw's debut album Angeleno came across my screen. This pretty boy is wearing a satin jacket and white Stetson, and a girl is nuzzling his shoulder. And there's that ridiculous name.
It took me a while to adjust to Oultaw's Nashville-by-way-of-Laurel Canyon approach to the country music canon, but it turns out the guy's not only got cattle, he knows the difference between a steer and a bull and he can even ride a horse. Apologies to the boy's dear mother are also in order. Her maiden name is, in fact, Outlaw.
This record has been on repeat at my house for the past several months because nearly every track would be at home on a honky-tonk jukebox. Outlaw manages to draw from Jimmy Webb, Hank Cochran, Gram Parsons and Ray Price without being a copyist. When he sings a line like, "I'm not jealous of him, I'm embarrassed for you," you can't help but think of George and Tammy. On other tracks, vocal harmonies and acoustic-guitar arrangements are reminiscent of classic cuts by the Eagles or the Flying Burrito Brothers' best work.
Singing along to this album is mandatory. Outlaw's voice is a whiskey-smooth cross between Dwight Yoakam and Glenn Campbell and custom made for introspective ballads. On "Country Love Song," his pensive phrasing is complemented by a bass-note guitar line that'll take you right back to the highway in "Wichita Lineman." If there's a weak track on the disc, it's probably "Hole Down in My Heart," only because the folky vibe makes it an orphan among the rest of Outlaw's pedal-steel-filled tunes.
Angeleno is deftly co-produced by Ry Cooder and his son Joachim. Both play throughout the record along with members of My Morning Jacket, Dawes, and the Punch Brothers. A special treat is the inclusion of mariachi star Jesus "Chuy" Guzman, whose horns can be heard on a number of Linda Ronstadt's '80s records. The production is warm, balanced and full of detail. The soundstage is wide and deep without being exaggerated. In the hands of a novice, Outlaw's music could have been overproduced, which would have ruined many of his strongest hooks and made his romantic approach seem trite or self-conscious. As it is, there is a natural quality to the sessions that gives the music weight and authenticity.
As picks for 2015's top albums for this genre start popping up, you're bound to see hipster favorites like Jason Isbell and Dave Rawlings on the list, and they've certainly earned their place. I'm guessing, though, that some critics will hesitate to nominate a former ad salesman turned songwriter with a silly album cover for special honors. Too bad, 'cause Sam Outlaw has straight-up twang and his Angeleno is a cool country classic.
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