An outlaw by any other name is still an outlaw – ask James “Whitey” Bulger who, no matter how many aliases he employed, was always Jim Bulger. With that said the same goes for suburban kids from the world of Silicon Valley, even self-styled outlaws like Sam Outlaw.
I was sitting in a diner, sipping my morning coffee when I first became aware of Sam Outlaw – he was doing his “Who Do You Think You Are?” live on some morning show. At first, I was like, yeah, okay, this is going somewhere and then it didn’t. It’s like the title of the track is begging the question.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve already heard the story about Sam Morgan taking his mother’s maiden name Outlaw, and I find that even more pitiful than just saying, ‘I like the outlaw mystique and country music and I thought it sounded cooler than my real name.’ I’ll buy that. And, yeah, I’m sorry that his mother died, but I’ll bet if her last name was Buttercup or Shart or Baals (all real last names it turns out) he wouldn’t have adopted any of those, so he’s not foolin’ anybody. Of course all these advertising maneuvers have the stink of a PR man, not an artist. And then of course we find that Sam Mogan, before he was Sam Outlaw, was in a “successful advertising career.”
He’s got all the trappings. He wears sunglasses and combs his hair back. He wears dark suits (sometimes) and talks about drinking and being lonely. Check, check, double check. But when you add it all together, he’s like some little boy from the suburbs who bought a bunch of old V-twin engine parts on eBay, opened the boxes, put them in a pile, poured gasoline over it all and wonders why it doesn’t sound like a Harley. It’s about craftsmanship. Country music – as folk music (music of the country people) – is bigger than the sum of its parts. This was a point that I think Muddy Waters was trying to make when he recorded Folk Singer in 1964 amidst the folk fad that had somehow narrowed the definition of “folk” music to something for white college kids.
Before going further, let me say, I’m not trying to be a prick here, but when you change your name to Outlaw, you’d better be able to deliver. I’ll offer an example: if, for instance, I were to hop on a Harley-Davidson sporting colors like “the red and white” or patches like “Hell’s Angels” or, well, “Outlaws” I’m pretty sure that I’d better actually be able to back my claim or risk leaving myself open for some pretty tough criticism – and other unpleasant experiences to say the least. So, as one who hails from the tradition of outlaw country myself, I feel it’s somewhat obligatory to ensure that those flying our colors are true to the cause and keeping up standards. Sam Outlaw, to my ears, is not. That’s not to say that he can’t…who knows what he has in store, but so far, I’m not impressed.
Don’t get me wrong, I respect the ethic of inspiring folks to try to keep traditional music alive but Mister Outlaw’s so-called “SoCal Country” misses the critical edge that really defines real-deal country music. The fact that he was produced by Ry Cooder has to mean something (right?). But what the likes of Mister Outlaw seem to miss is that traditional music isn’t defined merely by chord progressions, choice of instruments or even lyrical subjects. I’m listening to Outlaw’s “Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to A Bar)” and wondering: Has this kid actually ever been to a bar or a church? Country music in general, and outlaw country in particular, is about speaking in your own voice, telling your own story, or even the stories of others, but telling it your way. Just working in a Hank-style whimper or hiring a steel guitar player to give a lifeless song some atmosphere doesn’t cut it. I mean Sam’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” has more in common with Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” than anything ever written by Hank Williams, George Jones or Johnny Cash. (Don’t believe me: check it out yourself…”Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett and compare to Mr. Outlaw’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”)
Verdict: Sam Outlaw is to real country music what Sunday suburban motorcycle riders on their Gold Wings are to real bikers who live and breathe that lifestyle every day. If you’re looking for the living country tradition that’s true to the art and the ethic, do yourself a favor and check-out Junior Brown, Neko Case, Hank Williams III and, well, hell there’s so many authentic songwriters out there it’s hard to know who to recommend. Bottom line: If you want the real thing, there’s one thing you can be sure of and it’s that real outlaws and real country music isn’t going to be featured on CBS This Morning.
By J.D. THOMPSON