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Photo: Carlos Santolalla

Behind The Mask, Orville Peck Creates New Take On Country Music Cowboys


by Galilee Abdullah 30 Sep 2019

Could there be country music without cowboys? It’s hard to imagine. But the cowboy archetype means different things.  Mining those meanings gives Orville Peck an opportunity to play a character and, at the same time, express a deeper sense of himself in his music.

Peck never performs without his Lone Ranger style mask. Fringe hangs from it, covering his face. We may not know his identity, but we do know his style. He’s a cowboy.

“I think I fell in love cowboys when I was really young and I was really into Spaghetti Westerns and the idea of the masked bandit cowboys on the outside of things rolling into town. I love anything with kind of like an anti-hero in it.”

Orville Peck performs Oct. 1 at South Side Music Hall.

He says he’s always felt connected to the lonely spirit of the cowboy.

“My first introduction to cowboys was seeing characters like the Lone Ranger, or these people that were, for whatever reason, on the outside of things, and kind of drifters and kind of had this lonely soul and they always have like a handkerchief covering their face, or they all had some kind of story or life that they were either running from or trying to get back to, and I think that’s probably why I fell in love with the cowboy as a figure when I was quite young. I think I was kind of a pretty lonely kid, and I think I found those characters comforting, I suppose.”

Clayton Moore, as the Lone Ranger, and Silver.  Photo: ABC Television

While Orville Peck might be relatively new to the world, Peck says it’s always been part of who he is.

“There’s a photo of me when I was like eight years old and I’m wearing a cowboy hat and a Jurassic Park t-shirt and a handkerchief covering my face, because I think that was just my idea of cowboys. And then, the older I got, as I fell in love with country music, I started to realize that: I think there’s something to be said about these genres and these art forms that have the crossroads of, whatever people want to call it, performance, or intrigue, or drama, or boldness, mixed with ultra-sincerity through the use of wordplay, wit, humor, and heartbreak. I think that all of those qualities kind of make up what I believe is country music.”

Wearing a mask

Masked musicians aren’t new. There’s rapper MF DOOM and the electronic duo Daft Punk, for example. All have different reasons for being anonymous. Peck says it’s more than hiding his identity.

“I don’t see it any different as when Dolly Parton wears wigs, or Johnny Cash wore black suits everyday… I mean, what I wear and my aesthetic, people might think that’s me trying to formulate anonymity, or trying to cultivate mystery, but really it’s just an expression of something that’s been part of country music for a long time.”

Prior to putting on his mask, Peck was a working musician.  He says with the mask, he feels free.

“Now, I actually feel the most at ease I’ve ever felt, because I just feel like I’m genuinely being myself these days. And it’s so much easier, it’s almost relieving that I can just, without any kind of pretense, go up and sing songs that are really personal to me and I can present them in an artistic way.”

Orville Peck. Photo: Carlos Santolalla

Big Sky

Peck’s debut album is called “Pony”. He sings in a crooner style and a baritone voice. But it hasn’t been easy for him to express himself.

“I think it took me until I was into my late 20s, and even my 30s, like when I turned 30, I think I started to realize that, I have a really hard time opening up, especially to myself. And so, I think a lot of my songs on “Pony” are really about that, and the kind of struggle I’ve had with that, and how it’s affected my relationships in the past, and how it still affects me to this day. I think, these are the dilemmas of what we call a cowboy, and the spirit of a cowboy, it’s kind of this tug-of-war of someone who’s intrinsically lonely and just kind of trying to figure it out, I guess.”

One of the songs on the album, “Big Sky,” is more than a song about heartbreak, Peck says.

“It’s actually an introspective song, and it’s me breaking down the heartbreak within myself, and what my role in all of those relationships was, and why they couldn’t work. It’s not really about other people at all…it’s kind of a lonely song.”

Influences

“I fell in love with country music when I was pretty young after discovering Dolly Parton, and then as the years went on, moved into the outlaws, and Merle [Haggard] and Waylon [Jennings] and all of them, and then just like a broader love for country in general.”

Peck says he listens to everything, “I grew up listening to everything from punk rock, to classical music, to soul.”

He says his influences include k.d. lang. and even Whitney Houston, who he says is his favorite singer of all time. But, country has had a special influence on his style: “I definitely grew up listening to Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash, and that kind of old country crooner sound is something that I really love.”

Being gay in country

Peck is also openly gay. He says the idea that country music is dominated by straight white men is changing. And it certainly isn’t just him. Most recently, Lil Nas X, who is black, came out as gay as his single “Old Town Road” topped the charts this year and broke records.

“I think the stigma about country music is just something that’s been perpetuated by a finite amount of people, but it doesn’t speak for everyone that’s a fan of country and it doesn’t speak for everyone that makes country music. I’m definitely not the first country musician to sing that’s gay, or to sing about men, or whatever, and I won’t be the last”

Peck may be drawn to the spirit of lonely cowboys. But he’s happy that others are finding comfort and camaraderie in his music. Mostly, though, he just wants to be himself.

“The only agenda I have is to be sincere, and to sing about my experiences. And my experiences happen to be with mostly men and I’m a gay man, and so when I’m singing a love song, it’s probably going to be about a guy, just the same as anybody else who sings a love song, it’s going to be about whoever they’ve been in love with.”

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