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  • Ahmed Ragheb

Orville Peck: The Savior of Country Music

If you like country music, you should read this. If you don’t like country music, you should definitely read this. Ahmed Ragheb dives into Orville Peck's debut album, Pony.

Illustration: Grace Simmons (@GraceSimmons34)

He wears handmade masks adorned with fringe, from under which his two blue eyes pierce. He is covered in tattoos, visible through his open vests. He wears colorful Stetson hats and cowboy boots. His music is replete with whistles and the sound effects of hooves, bull-whips, and gunshots. His lyrics are at once unabashedly mawkish and languorously erotic. He is gay. He is anonymous. He is the messiah of country music and he goes by Orville Peck.

Peck’s debut album, Pony, was released in early 2019 and has already become a classic, a must have for any true fan of country music, and a pool of perfect temperature for anyone willing to dip their toe into the genre for the first time. Country, as a genre, has always been massively underrated by mainstream listeners as an art form. The mainstream listeners are not to blame, however. What is to blame is the parade of terrible country musicians of the last 30 or so years. Musicians who have decided, in one way or another, that they’d spite those mainstream listeners by becoming caricatures: singing about their daddy’s pick-up truck, tractors, guns, the flag, and empty beer cans. Despite years of association, these singers and these subjects don’t represent country music. They represent only bad songwriting and nothing more.

Okay, perhaps we should stop here and try to answer the question: What is country music? A thick twang in one’s singing voice? A slide guitar and banjo? (Those certainly help.) Alcoholism? The question can be incredibly tricky, and in trying to answer it you may fall into the trap of disentangling Western music from Bakersfield country, and blues and rock ‘n’ roll from Western outlaw balladry. It’s tempting, but we won’t even try here; it’s a touch too perilous for an article of this length. The answer we’ll have to accept, while perhaps unsatisfying, is most eloquently summed up by Kris Kristofferson at the beginning of “Me and Bobby McGee”: “If it sounds country, man, that’s what it is; it’s a country song.”

Well, maybe we can do just a little better than that. Although we’ll take his point: you’ve got to feel country music. When examining the very best of country artists (from pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, to ‘outlaws’ like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, to working-class heroes like Merle Haggard, to rockers like Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams, all the way to imposters like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe), a few traits start to stand out. Chief among them are the themes of heartbreak and alcoholism. Of course, a similar conclusion could be reached about rock or blues; the magic of country music, though, lies not necessarily in the themes but they ways in which they are addressed. The best country musicians have an uncanny ability to wrap devastating sadness in lighthearted sarcasm and humor, not detracting from the song’s sincerity but enhancing it tenfold. It is nothing short of a lyrical magic trick when pulled off. You’d be hard pressed to find a country ballad about heartbreak or loss that didn’t crack at least one joke or have a whimsical play on words without revealing some painfully depressing truths about its narrator.

Something else that comes back time and time again is showmanship. Frills and flamboyance may not come to mind immediately when you think country music, but it’s there, in spades. Bedazzled clothing and on-stage theatrics have been deeply ingrained in the culture of country music since Hank Williams had big musical notes sewn on to his jacket. You can also see it in the singers who get their names written on to the fretboards of their guitars. Obviously, there’s a lot more to country music than a sense of humor and costumes, but that’s the best we can do for now; as needed, we’ll have to fall back on Kristofferson edict: “If it sounds country….”

It doesn’t take a musicologist to see that modern-day country has been dulled and overly-saturated in stereotypes of the American south and southwest. From the uninformed jingoism of Toby Keith to the arrogant sexism of Luke Bryan, country music’s name has been dragged through the mud and, if this is all you know of it, was rightfully neglected. Stomp-clap pop-rock is not country. Pop is not country. And that’s what makes Orville Peck and his album Pony stand out. Here is an album that’s in line with the romantic ballads and rugged individualism of classic country music. His music hits the perfect balance of humor, flare and wit. But what’s more is that while he has such a unique style and presence, he has kept his personal history very much out of the spotlight. His name is not Orville Peck and, even though it is speculated that he is Canadian, we cannot be sure of any biographical information. Because one vital aspect of country music that we have mentioned is the showmanship, to be anonymous is to really be a representation of anything. He is his music, he is what he sings. Country music is storytelling and, by wearing a costume, he can fully become his own characters.

His voice on all the tracks is dripping with bravado and masculinity, injected with just the right amount of fun. I dare you to listen to “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)” and not have an absolute blast. Or take the wonderful music video for “Hope to Die”: it is a show of artistic extravagance, flamboyance, and delicate humor. He plays it straight, which is what takes the video from becoming a complete joke to being endearing and earnest; a true country musician is both of these things. We believe Peck when he belts out: “And I’m still undone / I’m not young, but I / I still try, cross my heart, now I hope to die” – we feel his passion. Despite the clichés of his melodramatic lyrics, his sincerity is never in question; if he is playing a character, he is playing it with excellence.

So, maybe it makes sense that it takes an openly gay singer, who is possibly Canadian, to save a traditional American genre in dire-straights. Pony sounds as though it was written by someone who missed the last 30 years of country music – maybe of popular music in general. Orville Peck takes a sound that was facing extinction and revives it in a way that will, I sincerely hope, change the course of country music going forward. ▲

Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!

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