Country music left Los Angeles when Guy Clark departed for Nashville without muttering a goodbye to anyone outside of Skinny Dennis. The Laurel Canyon scene was always more hippie folk than country or Americana, and LA residents have always seemed skeptical towards cowboy boots and bolo ties; until now, that is. Nowadays you can’t throw a vegan cupcake into Cafe Gratitude without hitting a hipster named Honcho. I won’t be surprised when Abbot Kinney offers free parking for horses with a valid Pressed Juicery receipt.
As indie—outlaw, alternative, Americana, whatever you want to call it, it all means the same thing—country gains in popularity nationally (thanks to the insane talents of folks like Sturgill Simpson, Lukas Nelson, and many others), LA’s begun developing a revitalized country rock scene with one ear always pointed west.
Sam Morrow’s been at the forefront of that scene for a few years, having left Houston for LA eight years ago to kick his addictions and never going back home. It’s a story that’d sound good on a Sam Morrow track. Morrow’s latest LP, Concrete and Mud is both his most fun and most exciting to date. The songs wallop and chug—if no longer spirits than a nice sarsaparilla. On the heels of Morrow’s just released third LP, we caught up with him to discuss LA’s resurgent country scene, the way sobriety affects his music, and not giving a fuck. —Will Schube
When did you start writing this new album?
Sam Morrow:I dunna man. I released my last record about two-and-a-half years ago. This is basically a record of what I’ve been doing since then. I’ve been doing a lot of touring and writing a lot of other songs, learning about myself and what I wanted to do musically.
When you’re touring as an Americana/Country band, you do a lot of long bar sets to make money. You’ve got to learn a lot of covers, which helped me learn about what I wanted to do and what I wanted this record to sound like. I was just stealing from other people. I’ve been writing for the past few years up to the record, and I added a bunch of stuff right before we began recording.
Is the recording process pretty collaborative with your band?
Sam Morrow:I work with this producer named Eric Corne. I’ve done the last few records with him. We have a really good working relationship. He’s the producer, but we sort of co-produced this one—we even co-wrote some of the songs. As far as the players go, it’s just a bunch of guys I really trust. They’re a lot better at their instruments than I am. I like to open it up. I trust their ideas and they’re comfortable bringing it to the table. I can either tell them it’s good or it sucks. It’s a good working relationship I have with all of those guys.
Were you surrounded by country music growing up in Houston?
Sam Morrow:I wasn’t really into country music until seven or so years ago. Growing up I was into Screwed Up Clik, Lil Flip—a lot of rap music. I actually convinced one of my best friends to get a Screwed Up Clik tattoo one night when we were really drunk. That shit doesn’t go away [laughs]. I listened to a lot of rock stuff, too. ZZ Top is one of my favorite bands of all-time. I also grew up playing music in church. That’s where I started playing with a band. It got me a lot of experience, playing with a band and playing in front of people. I didn’t want to listen to or like country music because it’s what people associate with Texas, but once I got sober seven or eight years ago and I started writing my own stuff again, I got into honest folk and country music. That’s what developed my love for country stuff.
I know your sobriety played a big role in informing the themes of your last two records. Does that experience still run through your songwriting?
Sam Morrow:It’s definitely not something I think about as much. This record is not as serious as the last few. If I do nod to my sobriety or addiction, it’s in a light or naïve way. There’s a song called “Quick Fix” that’s about me teasing my vices. The last two records were sort of sad bastard shit. That’s cool in its own right, but I wanted this one to be more fun, more rock and roll.
Did you move to LA and then begin writing this solo music?
Sam Morrow:When I was getting fucked up everyday I kind of used being a musician as an excuse to not have a real job. So I’d write here and there but I wasn’t serious about it. I was more serious about getting fucked up everyday. I moved out to LA to go to rehab and I just stayed out here. I just started writing and didn’t stop. It was a good way to get out all the shit I needed to get out, to keep my mind off everything. It’s a good outlet for me.
There hasn’t been a big indie-country scene in LA for a while. What was it like growing up with it?
Sam Morrow:It’s definitely getting bigger now. Americana/country music has gotten super popular in the past five years. There was always kind of a scene but it’s continuously growing. There are a lot of hipsters that love it now, which is cool. I’m not being cynical or bitter about it. People don’t think of California when they think about country music. They think about—well, I don’t know what the hell they think. But, a lot of country music came out of California, like Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakam. The whole Bakersfield scene, too.
There’s a bit of a revival going on here now. There’s a thing called Grand Old Echo that fosters the Americana/country scene. It’s every Sunday during the summer and it’s turned into a big deal. There are a lot of other little things going around here that foster the scene. My friends Jaime Wyatt and Sam Outlaw are kind of giving LA or Southern California country a voice. They’re putting it on the map a little more. It’s definitely growing.
Do you see yourself as a part of that bigger national scene? It’s getting huge with musicians like Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, and those others.
Sam Morrow:I’m obviously not at their point yet, but I definitely hope to be. I don’t really play in LA a lot. I’m mostly touring on the road. I think I’m sort of in the same vein as those artists, but maybe my music’s a tad bit different. I don’t really play California country necessarily. I play more southern rock, Little Feat style stuff, with country influences. I want to get where those guys are. I think I probably, hopefully will eventually. I respect those guys. Sturgill is one of my favorites and Tyler Childers is fucking great. I really wanted to see him at South By but it’s fucking impossible to see anybody at South By. I would definitely like to see myself in the same conversation as those guys eventually.
Have you ever been tempted to move somewhere where there’s a scene with a bigger infrastructure?
Sam Morrow:I don’t know, man. I always have it in the back of my mind that I want to move back to Texas at some point. But the thing about LA is that you can kind of stand out a little bit more out here. I’m on the road a lot anyways playing all kinds of different markets. A lot of my friends moved to Nashville, but everyone moves there. It’s so saturated it’s kind of hard to stand out. Austin’s turning into that a little bit. All my friends there are moving outside of town. I don’t think about it too much. I just do my thing and sort of live where I live. That’s the beauty of the internet, it doesn’t fucking matter where you live.
But do you think where you are informs your subject matter? Could you be making this kind of music anywhere?
Sam Morrow:Yeah, I don’t know if living in California has a huge influence on the music I’m making. I think I’d still listen to the same music if I lived somewhere else. I’m not a person that goes to a bunch of shows to discover music. I find it online and I listen to old records. I don’t know if California really influences my music a helluva lot. Maybe it would if I lived somewhere else, maybe it would be different. But I think I’d make the same records no matter where I lived.
There’s a lot of diversity regarding the sonic style of this record, more so than your early work. How did you go about deciding to broaden your sound?
Sam Morrow:I write a song and I have an idea of what I want it to sound like in the studio. I’ll find a groove I like and I’ll go with that until I come up with some good sounds. I have an idea of what I want it to sound like when I enter the studio, but I write pretty much everything on my acoustic guitar. A lot of these songs sound much different on that guitar, though.
But when I was writing I had an idea of what I wanted it to sound like and I tried to hear the band. When I went into the studio though, people came up with ideas. The whole groove for “Quick Fix” was way different than what I came up with. We stepped back and tried something else and that’s my favorite song I’ve ever made. It turned out really cool. So I’m open to changes in the studio and I listen to other people but I certainly have an idea of what I want to do when I write.
Was there anything you wanted to do differently on this record that you hadn’t tried on your previous records?
Sam Morrow:On the last few I wasn’t as involved in the mixing process. This time, I was very involved. I was there all the time. I wanted to push some boundaries some more and have it sound a little rougher around the edges. I pretty much recorded this live. We didn’t do too many overdubs. Everyone was in the room at once—keys, bass, drums, guitar all at the same time. It gave the record a live feel I really prefer. We did that a bit on the last record, but this whole album was recorded that way. I think it sounds better.
Where do you think that freedom to experiment and play everything more loosely came from?
Sam Morrow:I just stopped giving so many fucks [laughs]. Like, ‘Oh, that sounds cool. Let’s fucking do it.’ Or, ‘I don’t know what this is gonna sound like, we should try it.’ I think taking chances and trying to find what sounds good—what sounds good in your head and trying to put it down through experimentation helped; experimentation I wasn’t willing to do before because I didn’t know as much about the process or I was nervous or scared of being judged. I don’t have that anymore. I’ve made two records, this is my third, and I was just ready for a change—to take chances. I’m not sure what that’s from, maybe experience or maturity, but it was fun. I definitely won’t stop doing that.