If you need proof that music has the power to change society, look no further than Orville Peck. Coming from the punk and hardcore tradition of making your own rules to live by, Orville has broken the rules of country music, coming at just the right time when the country is the most broken. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mr. Peck has skyrocketed to success at the same time as Lil Nas X, revolutionizing the same genre. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two ended up doing a duet, actually. Perhaps there was always a homosexual, sort of Tom of Finland, element to country and cowboy culture (Brokeback Mountain wouldn’t be so controversial if released today) or perhaps this genre steeped in conservatism and rigid tradition has always been begging for an artist to liberate it. Whether gay or black or both, the changing face of country mirrors the changing face of America and the Americans that would’ve rejected a whiter, straighter brand of country are ready, willing, and elated to embrace a gayer, darker country music.
So who is Orville Peck? Everyone is wondering. The mask adds to the mystique, so maybe it’s better we never find out but you have to wonder, was he successful before and is now trying to separate himself from his previous work? Or is Orville Peck this good and somehow new to such a big stage? As a Canadian punk, Orville Peck was able to examine country from the outside looking in and regurgitate all its best elements: the crooning vocals, the love lorn lyrics, the humanity of it all, but make it his own: mysterious, dark, Lynchian, and romantic. He sold out every show he booked in Southern California, so it was my pleasure that I got to attend his first at the Observatory.
The night began with alternative country troubadour Dick Stusso, who along with his band created the perfect hybrid of country twang and shoegaze dazzle. Like a warm night in the heart of Texas, driving your pickup through the desert guided only by the stars, you feel the landscape warp and wave but not in a frightening way, you’re calmed by the strangeness of it all. You welcome the night and all the people that come along with it. That’s the vibe of a Dick Stusso show, the guitars can get you into a ho-down but can also wash over you with walls of beautiful noise. If you look at the man closely, you can’t help but think of Leonard Cohen.
Orville Peck’s crusade to ride into the sunset and change the nature of Americana everywhere he plays made a pit stop first at Amoeba records for an intimate acoustic show then the Orange County Observatory with a full band. Orville can’t take all the credit for this amazing performance, his whole band works together to create remarkable chemistry onstage. Something about their comroderie makes an audience want to love them.
At one point of the show, as I slowly smoked a cigarette outside and spoke to a few beautiful mature women in full cowgirl regalia, we discussed whether Orville Peck should be considered country. To them, he was more of a Morrissey or Chris Isaac sort of singer than a country artist like a Willie or a Merle. However, with a set that featured covers of classic cowpoke country duets, I’m not sure how you could think otherwise. Songs like “Dead of Night” don’t necessarily feel like country, they’re moody enough to be featured on David Lynch soundtracks, but nonetheless, the man is capturing the different the changing face of Americana and it can appear light or dark hearted. Love songs like “Roses are Falling” truly show the range of this man’s mojo. If you ever want to hear an audience of misfits cheer, have Orville Peck sing “Queen of the Rodeo”, his ode to a drag queen. He’s not so much trying to fit into a genre as he is trying to tell the story of a place that may or may not exist but we are still familiar with and know our way around in.
What I love most about Orville Peck is the sort of crowd he gathers. The misfits and the marginalized, often times these people are vocal about how they resent America for excluding them in what is considered normal but with Orville Peck acting as a sort of hearth and a center for us to gather around, these people are happy to relish in their inclusion in the American tapestry as Americans. The pain is silenced and the hate fizzles out. That’s why a song like “Turn to Hate” strikes such a tender chord. The country is so divided on so many levels, often times the pain we experience from being excluded or just flat out poor can make us hate someone else just because it’s an easy outlet for the pain. Orville Peck isn’t exactly a remedy for that pain but he does act as a mirror, giving us a chance to reflect on our feelings and behaviors so we can reassess ourselves and try to be better.
So who is Orville Peck exactly? I see him as a faceless narrator to our story as Americans. What lies behind the mask is a human being like me or you but what stands upon that stage with that mask on, surpasses humanity to tell its story. The cosmos expresses itself through people, people like Orville Peck, to tell it’s own story to itself and as it so happens, the cosmos is a country fan.
Words by: Rob Shepyer
Photos by: Jessica Moncrief