The Hero Country Deserves
Nestled up cozily near the warm center of Orville Peck's debut album Pony, there is a swaying torch song called "Kansas (Remembers Me Now)". Kansas seems like an odd reference point for country, and the track owes quite a lot to 50s-radio doo-wop and R&B. While the lyrics offer some pretty standard country symbology (including a "Las Vegas sunset"), it feels like it is a different style of song masquerading as a country song. When it retreats into a haze of aggressive distortion in the end, the devolution feels like part of the statement the song is making even while ostensibly a soundtrack for gazing out at the horizon from atop a horse and chewing on a sassafras twig.
Pony is formally country, yet functionally it tends to feel more like rock in some way that is hard to define. We can be forgiven for not seeing this coming since in the age of music's wanton and occasionally unnecessary hyper-genrefication country has gotten a bit of a pass. There are reasons for why we underanalyze country, but when they all shake out the result is that we feel like we know country when we hear it. However many artists may be working for change from within the country community, they are not often ones whom we see bubble up to be included in the center of whatever Venn diagram dictates the "mainstream". So the question then becomes, is Peck's music country in a functional sense because the form dictates it or is it something more subversive that uses country's tropes as a way to both widen its appeal and comment on the genre itself?
To start with, I know that Peck considers his music country and that he considers himself a country artist first and foremost. If I had any doubt about that I could just check out his artist profile page on SubPop which describes him as an "outlaw cowboy" with "country music roots". If I was still unclear I could check out the artist's Twitter account and see that he said this recently (TL;DR , "Yes, I'm Country, history will prove it."). So the goal for the artist and his label seems pretty obvious: making and distributing country music that is inclusive, sexy, and a bit transgressive in the way it holds open the door for those on the fringes of society.
All that being said, if the artist says the music is country, then it's country. Far be it from me to second guess his functional goal when what I am really talking about is the formalism and how well it fits. If he said he considered himself to be crafting death metal, I would have to concede that the music was death metal even though my ears would tell me differently. The bottom line is that he is correct in whatever he labels his music - it's not for me, or for anyone, to tell him otherwise. Accordingly, in that way, which is the primary driver of the overall decision, of course it's country music.
And yet. As mentioned, there is a push and pull on Pony between the form and the function that makes it all not quite add up to something that can be called "country" music. There are many reasons for this, but here are a few of the more noteworthy ones.
- Pony is aware of itself and its own existence inside a specific artistic style in a way that most country music isn't. Now this isn't to say that country artists aren't aware of the genre, or that fans can't tell the difference. It's only to say that most country music doesn't feel like it is aware of itself as country music. When I said before that most country gets a pass on getting overanalyzed, this is one of the biggest reasons why: if the songs aren't winking at themselves a bit, then there is typically little question about what they are or how to classify them.
- The themes don't line up with standard country fare. It would be easy to call this just another area of transgression and inclusion that Peck is executing as a way of broadening country's scope and bringing it to a more non-traditional audience. But the fact is that country has always represented certain endemic values, and he undermines them in ways that seem conscious and calculated. Take for example the outro of "Turn to Hate" where he says "don't let my sorrow turn to hate," and then repeats those final three words in a way that makes it clear he is not only asking for grace but also making a point about hate as a concept. Country music simply doesn't delve into abstractions in this way, typically emotions are only spoken of inasmuch as they are motivations for or results of actions - they don't have much of a deeper meaning, unless it's something the listener brings to the lyric.
- The mask. Orville Peck, the persona, is rarely in public without his distinctive leather fringe mask. His reasoning for this is that it is a way of getting the audience to connect to something more than an image or personality - in the same way as Sia, he wants to be faceless so that his relative anonymity allows the music to speak for itself. I am 100% on board with this as an ideal and artistic goal, but within the scope of the country genre there isn't precedent for minimizing an artist's image. Country is about surface and personality to a fault more often than not, most of its stars wouldn't be caught dead doing something without credit, let alone perform on a video with their face covered.
- Lastly, Peck keenly uses devices much more theatrical than are found in much country music. On "Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)" he peppers the background with whip cracks and gunshots that make the song sound vaguely like the theme from Rawhide. More than once on the album he utters a guttural "yee-haw" as an ad-lib. Conversely, some of his preferred sonics aren't found in country at all - note the snare's gated reverb on "Dead of Night" and "Hope to Die", and the bass drone on "Old River", these aren't sounds that country musicians have ever used in a prominent way.
And here's the thing: I love this album (see here for proof!). I have been listening to it for weeks at the time of this writing, and I am positive it is going to stay in the rotation for a good long while. I enthusiastically enjoy almost everything about it, and a lot of that is because of the things I see that make it separate and apart from most other country music. I admire Peck's desire to bring more people under the country umbrella, and I heartily hope it does just that. My argument isn't that what he's doing isn't as good as country, my argument is that what he's doing transcends the typical artistry of country, which is a form that has arguably gotten a bit stale over the past thirty years as a result of the sound being monopolized by megastars peddling bastardized country-pop.
Luckily, our media lexicon already has a way to describe the style of art produced with the trappings of a genre that is itself a comment on that genre and/or a recognition that it itself is a piece of art. I would call Pony a great and possibly pioneering example of post-country music. It sounds like country but if one digs a little past the surface they are bound to see a dusty, beating heart that doesn't so much want to be country as it wants to reform country into something edgier, something shiftier, something more welcoming for everyone. Being post-country doesn't make the music strictly not country, but it expands the palette of colors and adds tools to the kit, making the overall experience something that has the ability to be emphatically more satisfying than what is offered by standard country on its own.
This distinction is one that admittedly is largely academic, and yet somehow it seems important in some way. Nomenclature and categorization are things that are often overlooked, but they carry a certain amount of currency with regard to how music is discovered in the increasingly digital/online landscape. Sometimes labels can be alienating for some listeners. There is an irony in how it would be possible for Orville Peck to miss out on potential fans simply because they either don't like "country" music or have had bad experiences within that scene. Clarifying to them at the outset that this isn't the same old country music they have grown to expect may actually bring more fans into the tent and increase his outreach. Overall number of connections is perhaps the most significant index to consider here because any message of inclusion is only as good as the amount of people it can touch. So while this shouldn't be read as a plea for anyone to change the designation of his music, perhaps it can be a jumping off point for a discussion about why that idea could have some value.
In all reality this doesn't matter for me very much, except that it gives me something to ponder. If you tell me that you have guitars that evoke surf rock and shoegaze, vocals that imagine the silkiness of Chris Isaak through the prismatic hues of the best New Wave antiheroes, drones that lend an ominousness to fire-breathing hymns of loss, key changes that splash in the diva-friendly waters of 90s balladry, and a frontman who is sexually charismatic while also endeavoring to say important things implicitly and explicitly, I am going to be here for it. I will make the call as to what I think it sounds like, because that is just the kind of listener I am, and either way it won't matter because the music will keep me engaged. However, there are listeners for whom this sort of thing might matter more. These might be people who won't give it a chance based on a simplistic label, or will be determined not to like it even if they do. Letting them know early on that they will be getting more than what country is known for becomes a way to open the door wider and perhaps keep it open for future generations.
I couldn’t agree more with Peck that "country music is for everybody and anybody." I just hope that his laser-beam focus on the anybody doesn't take away from his opportunity to connect with more of the everybody.