Sam Outlaw is not supposed to be in Nashville. And yet here he is, sitting on the patio of a near-Nashville bar, another Man in Black with dark jeans, Wrangler jacket, and faint crows feet around his eyes, relaxed as the mandolin of a bluegrass band is burning down the house. Despite his best intentions and public statements to the contrary, the 37-year-old has moved his wife and two children here for a better life. Nashville, for the now-former Los Angeles resident, is home.
“It was a difficult decision,” Outlaw says, leaning back, a pint glass sweating on the table. “My wife and I were surprised on New Year’s Day of 2018 that we were pregnant with our second child. We were staring down the barrel of how we were going to make ends meet with two kids in L.A.”
For a man many heralded as the “Second Coming of California Country,” this is a Judas moment, one that bothered him three months before the move and four months after. “It’s like going back to your old high school,” he says. Country music is headquartered in Nashville and Nashville is country music, so for a West Coast artist, the town can feel claustrophobic with its reputations and egos, the swirl of gossip and rumors. Compounding this, California is tied to his identity—so much so that he titled his debut record, 2015’s Angeleno, after his hometown. And what’s a man without a home?
“My canned joke before was when I’m in L.A., I’m a dork in a cowboy hat, but if I move to Nashville, I’m just another dork in a cowboy hat,” Outlaw says. “But the truth is, if I were to make decisions about the wellbeing of my family based on my own PR, that would be pretty reckless.”
It’s a philosophical question: What if Sam Outlaw didn’t move to Nashville in mid-2018? But things are happening now with Outlaw’s career in Nashville that never happened while he lived in Cal. Big things. Things like his Grand Ole Opry debut on Friday, March 3, or like leaving his embryonic label Six Shooter Records to forge his own path, the first fruits of which are a cover of Don Williams’ “Love Is on a Roll” and the surprise EP Hat Acts, the latter digitally released the same day as his Opry performance. Like a 49er in reverse, Outlaw packed his family and moved east, and now he’s striking gold.
Outlaw, essentially a Los Angeles native, has operated on the periphery of mainstream country music for the entirety of career. Signed by the Toronto Americana label Six Shooter, he put out two critically acclaimed records: Angeleno, with a follow-up of 2017’s Tenderheart. Both made the end-of-year lists from core country sites and indie institutions alike. The reason is obvious from first listen: Both records display a command of styles within the genre, from honky tonk to “Ring of Fire” mariachi horns, with flashes of Tom Petty and John Mellencamp. They’re both sonically interesting and lyrical tender, with songs that can stop you in your tracks or have you tapping your foot. But with his departure from his hometown and label, he’s looking toward an equally unique career.
“Our culture is opening up pathways that are not so set in the 1940s,” Outlaw says, adding, “I don’t know that I’m going to keep doing the 15-song records.” Sure, this might make it harder to find a home with a traditional label, but his latest and greatest influences are coming from modern formats, which is epitomized by Hat Acts.
While the EP includes six tracks, its three wide-ranging songs are interspersed with three skits more akin to the Nineties hip hop mold (see Snoop Doggs’ Doggystye and Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever, among many, many others). But the form is where the influence stops; the tropical waltz of “Cigarette,” Western-swinging “Shake a Heartache,” and ballad “Humility” continue his manic movement within country music. And the skits themselves? They’re far from the braggadocio of classic rap, instead following a self-deprecating boozy night in L.A. where girl at a bar doesn’t like his music and a guy tells him that he and his hat should “go back to Montana.” “I was a fucking dork, and I’m still a fucking dork,” Outlaw says. “I think it’s funny to make fun of yourself.”
Hip hop’s influence within country music made national news with the controversy over Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” so Outlaw’s unabashed love for the genre, which he says is on the “forefront of honesty,” is a gutsy admission on the eve of an Opry debut. The traditional institution has a star-making power independent of the charts, epitomized most recently by Carly Pearce’s success, and Outlaw’s two-song set could echo far beyond its hallowed walls. But while he’s got a healthy respect, he’s never kowtowed to the country mold, and he isn’t worried about starting now. “I was laboring under the delusion that these people didn’t like me—maybe because I was from California or that I’m inappropriate in my tweets,” Outlaw says. “I’m not a star, right? I’m barely part of the Americana machine.”
But he goes on: “Even the most cynical bastard out there has a deep understanding of the history of what it is that you’re doing.”
Outlaw remembers coming off a bad divorce in 2010, his parents themselves in the middle of splitting. He’d sip whiskey and watch an eight-disc box set of classic Opry performances as a kind of catharsis. “That taught me what country music was,” he says. “There’s still glamour to them—if you’re coming out in sequins, there’s a level of entertainment. But these people got up on stage and sung the shit out of those songs. That was entertainment.”
Approaching the Opry nine years later offers a gut-churning amount of pressure. “It feels like Neil Armstrong when he walks on the moon for the first time,” he says. But he’s in Nashville now, growing comfortable on its stage even as he takes the Opry’s for the first time. Sam Outlaw is home.