Interview: Orville Peck Takes His Place in Country Music’s Long Line of Outsiders
Sure, he looks a little unapproachable in his fringed, face-obscuring mask and cowboy hat, but make no mistake: Orville Peck is a voracious, un-ironic country music nerd, ready to gush over his favorite Tammy Wynette songs and the latest episode of Ken Burns' Country Music documentary.
"I was sitting in my hotel room watching it, like, 'See?! See?!" Peck opines to The Boot of the latter, his voice rising in excitement, his arms defiantly folded. When he starts making a point about something he cares about as deeply as country music, the fringe on his mask begins to sway back and forth.
"There's this stigma about country music nowadays, and I don't really understand it," he continues. "I mean, I kind of get why it happened, but it's still shocking to me, maybe just because I know the genre so well."
Peck's abiding love for country music history radiates off of him like perfume -- so much so, in fact, that it can be a little difficult to get him to talk about his own project. That project, however, is intricately linked to his love of country culture, particularly the cowboy era.
"I mean, cowboy culture in general! It's, like, Mexican culture. It's from Appalachia. It's mountain music. It's bluegrass. I mean, there's so many -- it's blues, it's rock, Memphis culture. So many things came together to make country music that, to me, it feels like a diverse genre," Peck reasons. "Unfortunately, a lot of the gatekeepers of it on a mainstream level -- as with every genre and every form of art -- tend to be straight white men with very deep pockets."
"Do I believe that I'm the first person to do this? No, and I won't be the last, but I feel really grateful to be in good company."
That way of doing business helps further the perception that country music is made by only one type of person, Peck goes on to say, when nothing could be further from the truth. Outsider artists who challenge the format -- Kacey Musgraves, Lil Nas X and the Highwomen, for example -- are not a modern phenomenon.
"Even just people like Chet Atkins, Ernest Tubb, all the outlaws -- Waylon [Jennings], Kris [Kristofferson], Willie [Nelson] -- those people all came and shook up the standard of what country music was, originally. And it happens every generation," Peck notes. Though he's thrilled to find his own less-traveled path to country music, the singer stresses that he's not the first to shake up the genre's tropes.
"Do I believe that I'm the first person to do this? No, and I won't be the last, but I feel really grateful to be in good company," he points out. "It's so exciting to be part of a time when outside country, or underground country or whatever you want to call, it is actually moving to the mainstream. It's about time, you know?"
Peck isn't the first to adopt visual elements as part of his country music aesthetic, either; there are plenty of country stars in Nashville who wear a cowboy hat and boots onstage, even though they don't go home to ranches and rope cows at the end of the day. Still, the singer knows his mask represents a new twist for many fans. Several months after the March release of his first album, Pony, though, Peck is beginning to see his visual presentation normalize when he plays shows.
"It's so funny how, now, that's stopped kind of being an issue, I guess. The first few shows we ever played, I definitely felt -- I don't know -- insecure going out and wondering what people would think," he remarks. "But I think the really magical thing about this album is that people have really connected to it in an amazing way, which is more than I ever could have hoped for."
Even so, Peck knew it was possible for fans to connect to his music, because he connected to country music growing up. Peck, who is gay, is hardly the kind of Southern good old boy that many people think of when they think of a country music listener.
"Especially as a marginalized person, I grew up connecting to those aspects of country music so deeply, even if I was listening to Tammy Wynette singing about "Stand By Your Man" or whatever, and the reality of her specific story maybe didn't relate to my circumstances," he muses. "But the feeling of heartbreak -- Patsy Cline singing "I Fall to Pieces." Those were things I could relate to at a very young age, because I just felt alienated as a person."
"I think there's something about a lone spirit that runs through country music that I really relate to, that I think a lot of people can relate to."
Pony's songs tell true stories. With the exception of one fictional storyline in "Kansas Remembers Me Now," each track is about a person or situation from Peck's life. However, if he grew up relating to songs sung by artists such as Cline and Wynette, even listeners who have little in common with Peck can still relate to his music. The singer knows country music well enough to know it isn't the lyrical details that define a song, but rather the overarching feeling.
"I think there's something about a lone spirit that runs through country music that I really relate to, that I think a lot of people can relate to," he muses. "I think that's why we love it, and the storytelling hits us so hard."
Peck's debut album borrows heavily from cowboy culture, and although the cowboy era is one for which he has a particular affinity, he isn't ruling out moving on to other aspects of country music in records to come. "I think I will always make what I know as country music, but that is a very broad subject," he notes.
"My music at the moment, and the way I write, is heavily inspired by a certain era of country, and you can hear those references," Peck continues, "but I think there's also things I bring to it that are references beyond that. It'll probably evolve, I think -- as good art should.
"But I mean, I'll always consider myself a country star," he adds, with just the hint of a smile peeking out from underneath his mask. "No one will ever tell me any different."
A Brief History of Queer Country Music