I’m fortunate to be able to listen to a lot of different music, quite a bit of it sent to me without me asking for it and often without me knowing who the artist is. Over the past few years of writing about country music, and over my whole life of being obsessed with music, I’ve felt the gamut of emotions when listening to albums for the first time: from admiration to joy, giddiness, sometimes bewilderment, occasionally disappointment. Often I’m moved, not just by the songs but by the accomplishment of the work. Sometimes, rarely, I fall head over heels in love. And so I have with Tenderheart by Los Angeles singer-songwriter Sam Outlaw.
Tenderheart sounds like it has been created deep in the well of country music, arising from the bedrock of the genre’s past and swirling up through the layers of generations and change since. The water in that well is pure and clean and vital – and the well just happens to be Los Angeles, so it is infused with different stories than can be found in a lot of contemporary American country music. Outlaw draws on the life and lifestyle of Southern California, of the people he knows and the things he sees, with a clear eye and honest intentions. ‘Bougainvillea, I Think’, the story of a friendship between a young man and an old woman, is achingly beautiful, every single time I hear it. ‘Tenderheart’ is appropriately tender and sweet. ‘Bottomless Mimosas’ is knowing without being snide. The opening track, ‘Everyone’s Looking for Home’ is wistful and poignant.
Outlaw’s voice is modern yet vintage – he has the style to sing old-time country with one codicil: that music often arose from pain and Outlaw sounds like he is enjoying himself far too much for that. There are some songs that fit more comfortably into a standard country slot: ‘Two Broken Hearts’ and ‘She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid of)’, to name two. Even then, it is identifiably Outlaw at their helm, with his gentle croon.
Outlaw sounds as if the best thing he could imagine would be to sit on a stool with his guitar and sing, no matter if there was one person, one hundred or one hundred thousand in front of him. And that sounds true even when these songs are layered with other instruments – steel guitar, of course, and also horns at times – all reinforcing songs that are so well written that they don’t need the help but they surely sound great with it.
This album may not find its way to country music purists simply because Outlaw’s relative youth and his location might see him labelled something other than a purist himself. Yet Tenderheart is the work of someone who understands and respects his musical heritage, who has found its structures liberating rather than confining, and who brings a fresh perspective to music that has such a long history. All while he’s having fun with it; while he’s letting us see who he is, unafraid to be emotional and open, honouring one of the very best things about country music: the desire of artist and audience to connect with each other and emerge better for the experience.
Tenderheart will be released on 14 April 2017 by Six Shooter Records\Thirty Tigers\Cooking Vinyl Australia.