As high concepts go, it’s brilliant to the point where one has trouble getting a handle on what’s fiction and what’s reality.
At face value, Orville Peck might be the best thing to happen to country music since Kacey Musgraves, who’s made a modern cottage industry out of subverting one of the most stubbornly traditional genres in popular music.
One commands the stage at Coachella with “When I say ‘Yee,’ you say ‘Haw,’ ” and then bitch-slaps the audience for being unable to follow simple directions with “I didn’t fucking say ‘Yee.’ ”
The other isn’t afraid to salt his lyrics with yee haw, two words that—unless your name is Kacey Musgraves—haven’t belonged in country music since CBS pulled the plug on Hee Haw.
The amazing thing about Peck? Well, for a start, there’s nothing cartoony about the way he solemnly intones “Yee haw” in “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)”, a song on his stunner of a debut album, Pony.
And, perhaps more important, there’s nothing cartoony about a character who could easily have seemed a one-note piece of shtick. It’s not easy to come off as dead serious when you hit the stage in a cowboy hat, post-Nudie’s western finery, and—most famous of all—an identity-obscuring, bandannalike mask. And what brilliantly theatrical masks he wears—think the Lone Ranger if he had a thing for leather and Victorian lampshades. Or the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, if the titular singing cowboy had a thing for the films of Frederico Fellini.
And it’s when one takes Peck’s signature masks and then considers his back story that things get truly interesting.
The singer identifies as queer, which makes him something of a rarity in a genre where the target audience is whisky-drinking good ol’ boys and the cheating women who love them. He’s also Canadian. Do your research—which sadly these days consists of spending 3.2 seconds on Google—and you’ll find plenty of speculation he was heavily involved in Vancouver’s fabled Emergency Room scene. You might have even seen him help re-create the Last Supper at the Legion on Main for a Georgia Straight Best of Vancouver Bands photo shoot.
His strongly DIY punk-rock past gives him a different take on country music. On Pony, Peck mostly comes off as a traditionalist—a lonesome cowboy who’d be happier on the sun-baked plains of 1895 Nevada. Occasionally, he’ll drop the façade a bit—pay attention and you’ll notice the Velvet Underground–strength distortion in “Kansas (Remembers Me Now)” and the garage-goth organs in “Old River”. Mostly, though, this is the album you want on when you’re sitting around a full-moon campfire in the middle of nowhere with Chris Isaak, Nick Cave, Ennio Morricone, Lana Del Rey, and the ghosts of Marty Robbins and Roy Orbison.
Peck—who is on famously progressive Sub Pop in the States—has noted that he’s received letters from folks in Middle America thanking him for making country great again. Which is ironic, because he’s hardly positioned himself as a man who’d be at home breaking bread with God-fearing churchgoers, most of whom would presumably have trouble relating to “Winds Change” lyrics like “Left my mind in the Salt Lake City/Met a lot of men who would call me pretty.” And they’d be less than open-minded about the video for “Hope to Die”, which looks like something David Lynch might have dreamed up over Lone Stars and Bulleit bourbon at Ben’s apartment in Blue Velvet.
The clip starts with an image of two face-to-face illustrated cowboys made famous by Sid Vicious’s favourite T-shirt during the Sex Pistols’ Texas tour. Over the next four-and-a-half minutes, we get Peck, mesmerizingly, taking the Holy Body Tattoo approach to line dancing and then squaring off with a fellow gunslinger who’s shown not only from behind but from between naked legs. Eventually, Peck is shot in the chest, but with a load of white goo that would impress Matt Ramsey.
It’s brilliant even if you might be reading too much into things.
With Pony, a Canadian queer cowboy has just done classic country better and more authentically than anyone in America not named Kacey Musgraves.
Things become even more fascinating when one considers the political climate in Donald Trump’s America. The USA today is backsliding into a time when the country was proudly intolerant. With Peck, a new mysterious stranger has ridden into a town, increasingly untrusting of anyone different-looking. To conservative, MAGA–cap-sporting country fans, the singer’s fringed mask might as well be a burqa.
Intoxicating as his deep-valley country might be, it’s not for those who want their storytelling ripped from the pages of the Music Row playbook. Peck’s world has a revered place for Marlboro Red packs and the Man in Black. But it’s also one where two men on the run somewhere near the Carson City line aren’t afraid to ride hand in hand.
“See the boys as they walk on by,” Peck sings magically in the high-and-lonesome lament “Dead of Night”. Cleverly, he then leaves the listener to fill the rest in with “It’s enough to make a young man…”
God help you if you’re a proud homophobe who’s only interested in dead dogs, broken pickup trucks, and the wife who just left you and your half-gone bottle of bourbon.
Country has a new, fast-rising outlaw. Hang on to your black cowboy hats, fringed masks optional. It’s about time.
Orville Peck plays a sold-out Commodore on Tuesday (August 27).