Tenderheart (Six Shooter/Cooking Vinyl)
Yes, he has a hat and song titles that sound like a classic punchline/country standard – e.g. She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of). And it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a man playing country in a hat is in want of a good excuse to never grow up.
So it’s possible the Californian may have once been tempted to go the bro country route: that empty highway littered with beer cans, the smell of cheap cologne mixed with pre-made sweat and the vestiges of artistic credibility.
But the truth about Sam (“yes, it’s a genuine family name, how many times will I have to say that?”) Outlaw is there in the album title: he is definitely, unashamedly, tender. Of heart and voice.
Even if he wanted to bro-out with the Lukes, Dierks and Keiths, Outlaw would have quickly realised his gentle, high and vulnerable voice would have had him at a severe disadvantage.
Instead, Tenderheart is filled with relaxed tunes, most of them played at a ruminative tempo – and a few such as the twang-iffic All My Life set in a rumoured pre-rhinestones past - and appearing at first glance to be easy listening fare: more Jackson Browne than Zac Brown.
Actually, they are easy listening – and he sounds more James Taylor than Jackson Browne in any case - but that doesn’t have to be negative. For a start in both vocal tone and songs such as Now She Tells Me and the old school two-step All My LIfe, Outlaw regularly sounds like Fountains Of Wayne in country pop mode. And that band was all quality. And if you like your quieter Ryan Adams moments you’ll find common ground here.
That semi-joke titled song, She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of), is a tart weepy which has barbs both ways – Outlaw’s characters aren’t always honourable, even when wronged. And when they’re bad, as in the blame-my-bad-friends Trouble, they don’t always know how to face the truth.
Meanwhile, Bougainvillea, I Think, teeters on the edge of mawkish: remembering a woman from Argentina, a “sweet old lady who put flowers in her hair” he once knew, he sings “she was my neighbour and I was her friend”. But it slides past that potential pothole as he realises he can’t remember her name, though he can still see the floral print she had on the wall.
Likewise, Bottomless Mimosas, opens under dappled skies of plains country but actually sinks into a suburban milieu of cocktails, gossip, working for the weekend and – in a neat line nodding to and undermining a Californian easy country predecessor - “wonder[ing] if there’s meaning in the peaceful easy feeling that takes all the blues away”.
While there’s a swell of strings and south of the border brass in Everyone’s Looking For Home at the start of the album, Tenderheart mostly settles for the simple deal of regular arrangements: acoustic guitars sound gentle, pedal steels are subtle, drums play at the edge.
You’re not going to dance much to Tenderheart, you won’t cry into your rye-and-beer-chaser with tragedy either, but you’ll feel like putting your feet up, tipping that hat down over your eyes and just enjoying some, yes, peaceful, easy feeling.