by Brent Smith

“When you start a new church, you need a new hymnal.” 

-William Blake

Orville Peck has risen out of the country music horizon like a desert mirage. His visage is just as obscured and watery, mesmerizing fans and critics. Like some famed vigilante from Old Western pulp, Peck dons a floral-embroidered shirt, matching cowboy hat, and gazes with striking blue eyes from behind a fringed leather mask. 

In the current climate where the artist is scrutinized more than the art itself, most coverage has focused on the coveted man behind the mask. Who is Orville Peck, really? I’m not interested. The mask is the man. And Peck agrees. “I don’t feel like I’m hiding anything. I am Orville Peck, and this how I choose to present myself as an artist. This project is more sincere than anything else I’ve done.” 

The mask forces the audience to look at the work, which is, in the end, what really matters. 

I’m more interested in Peck’s penchant for romanticism and outlaw sensuality, his longing for a forlorn and wild American spirit like it’s an old lover.

I speak to the mask over phone as the band approaches
the last leg of their North American Tour, driving through the mountainous terrain of Revelstoke, British Columbia. The signal cuts in and out between me and the electric cowboy on the road. 

ZARA  jacket,  GUESS  t-shirt, and  H&M  pants.

ZARA jacket, GUESS t-shirt, and H&M pants.

You dig Western films? 

Marlon Brando directed One-Eyed Jacks, that’s probably my favorite. I like that James Dean and Brando influence of hyperrealism that they tried to inject into the Western during that time. 

Billy the Kid once stated, “I’ll be with the world until She dies.” What does the Old West mean in 2019?

I feel like it’s the Old West again. People are embracing 
their individuality. We lived in a recent time when we hoped everything was going to be okay, that the powers that be were going to sort it out. But now everyone’s fending for themselves because they’re disappointed. Everyone’s on their own horse, doing their own thing. That’s how I feel. I feel pretty disillusioned with the structures of society. 

You dig guns? 

Do I think people should be owning guns in America and killing each other? No. 

You ever been to jail? 

I was arrested once in San Antonio, but they threw out my case. It’s not a very cool story. 

You believe in God? 

I believe in Earth. 

That’s evident in the canvas-like nature of your songs, bringing iconic American landscapes back to life. Your debut album, Pony, is like a score to a movie that doesn’t exist.

The American landscape I like—what feels Americana to me—is the weird, small towns and our unique transient culture. Motels don’t really exist in the same way in the rest of the world, and there’s a fascinating pull to this idea of consuming and moving through small American towns. I think that combines with 
the essence of cowboy culture, which has been around since America was colonized. The crossroads where those ideas meet is my aesthetic. 

I don’t see your songs as gay love songs, simply love songs. I doubt others see it that way. Is your queerness a threat to the perceived machoism of the country world?

I don’t think so at all. So many people from that community have already embraced the album and embraced me. It runs the gamut at the shows. Some are drag queens, some are queer, some are punk, some are just regular joes with wives and kids. But they’re all big country fans. I think it’s always been an open genre, but it’s got this stigma. Of course there are people who aren’t down with what I sing about, but if you’re doing something right that’s going to happen with any genre. I don’t feel like I’m coming into country music to shake things up. 

Towing the line, dragging up the roots... 

I’m doing it the only way I know how. It’s funny because the only people who seem to comment on it are people who really don’t know anything about country music, which I find ironic. Those that do, never bat an eye at the references I make, or any of the sounds I incorporate, or any of the genres I overlap. Country has many different sounds to it. 

H&M  jacket and pants, and talent’s own shirt, hat, mask, belt, and boots (worn throughout).

H&M jacket and pants, and talent’s own shirt, hat, mask, belt, and boots (worn throughout).

Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from the country charts because it “didn’t merit inclusion.”

I don’t see the old white men that run country radio as the authorities. The fact of the matter is that “Old Town Road” doesn’t sound that different than any of the music these white country artists are making. The fact that there’s a trap country genre blend in 2019 isn’t surprising. Why shouldn’t there be? If Lil Nas X wants to wear a cowboy hat and sing about horses, then why shouldn’t it be counted? 

It’s not Willie Nelson but who cares. 

It’s just a threat to massive industry bigwigs, and those people get pissed off at anything they think is a threat. When we play “Old Country Road” on a playlist before my shows, every person in that audience is turning up to that song and screaming the lyrics. I don’t think that guy has anything to prove. If anything, it’s time for country radio and the industry to evolve. That’s across the board for every genre of music. We live in an interesting time. Lil Nas X became the highest selling artist on the planet through subreddits, so who the fuck needs a record label and who cares whether or not they consider it country music? He has the last laugh. 

Institutions like the CMT Awards are embarrassing. 

That world is a mutual admiration society. People applauding for things they’ve already paid and marketed for and proclaiming those the winners. It’s not real. Finally, there’s enough of an underground in country now that runs the gamut of artists that are completely different. It’s a genre that will have a great comeback with a lot of interesting artists with new perspective and sounds. I’m excited about country music. It feels like being a punk rocker when I was a teenager. There’s endless potential. 

More down n’ dirty with the people? Less with the polished corporatism? 

It makes sense to me. Country music is essentially folk music, which is representative of the social culture of the time. What are country singers supposed to keep singing about nowadays? Trucks and picket fences? Who cares? Even Kacey Musgraves, like her
 or not, sings about doing acid and losing her virginity. Things are primed for a huge change on all levels. I think it’s lovely that people mention me in the same breath as those artists, but even what 
I’m doing is so different from what they’re doing. That’s what’s so exciting about it.

Photographed by: Phyllis Lane

Styled by: Melanie Sutton

Issue 166
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