“Fell in love with a rider,” sings Orville Peck in a soft yet sonorous tone after three deep echoing guitar notes in his song “Big Sky.” Peck continues, “Dirt king, black crown. Six months on a knucklehead hog. I like him best when he’s not around.” With that insertion of the pronoun “he,” “Big Sky,” off of Peck’s album Pony, which was released this March on Sub Pop, is a different sort of country tune than we’re used to. Sure, both musically and thematically, with its narrative of failed love and a rugged individualism that is, at once, lonely and free, the song couldn’t be more grounded in country music history. The riding-into-the-sunset cowboy masculinity is right in line with heavyweights of outlaw country like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, combined with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn’s confessional songwriting. But documenting the doomed affairs with both men, bikers and boxers, and one woman jailer, Peck interjects queer lived experience into traditional country.
And this couldn’t have happened soon enough. As a rabid fan of any sad country music that sounds good when slumped over a potentially dangerous bar (a.k.a nothing played on the radio in the last, I dunno, forty years), I’ve been completely rabidly obsessed with Peck ever since I caught a glimpse of his sleaze-filled, neon light-tinted music video “Dead of Night, which was shot at the still-working legal brothel The Chicken Ranch in Nevada where “The West is still wild.” With just one look at Peck wearing his eponymous fringed mask and a red suit, making Elvis-like thrusts and finger jabs, I was already sold, but then, as he started singing, “See the boys as they walk on by” in a Roy Orbison falsetto croon, I could feel my soul leave my body. I ascended; just send me a can of Lone Star.
Part of the reason why Orville Peck feels like such a revelation is the sense of unattainable mystery and fantasy that pervades both his appearance and the music in a way that contemporary country hasn’t necessarily embraced in decades. There’s not a whole lot of romanticism about red solo cups. In contrast, Peck’s debut album Pony offers a vision of the Wild Wild West, chock full of strange canyon roads, dreamless nights, and lost queens of the rodeos. Pony transports listeners to a Western dreamscape that is out of time and place.
In this, Orville Peck has a lot in common with (guess who I’m going to prattle on about again) Lana Del Rey. Now, this comparison doesn’t come from nowhere, and it’s not just the similarities in their lyrical output with copious references to riding, getting high, and hoping to die. Like Lana, Orville Peck is a pseudonym, at once, a fiction and a real performer. For Lana, that fiction is the American Dream in its many incarnations, whether the Kennedys’ Camelot, Hollywood, cult leaders, or motorcycle gangs. But, for Orville Peck, the imaginary he’s engaged with is equally grounded in American mythology: John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, and other numerous rebellious lonesome cowboys roaming the untarnished land of the American West. Both visions of Americana, naturally, are a complete fantasy.
And yet, they maintain an intoxicating mystery that encourages the listener to try to grasp it again and again. Part of Peck’s unknowability comes from his constantly worn, unique take on the Lone Ranger mask, which dangles with copious fringe. It’s both intimidating and alluring, referencing the anonymous cowboys saving dusty and nearly abandoned abandoned towns throughout Western cinema, as well as fetish gear. A combination that I know is not lost on Peck. Those masks have always been a little BDSM, haven’t they? But this is exactly what Peck does frequently throughout his creative output. He’s not simply inserting queerness into country. In contrast, if feels as if he’s just revealing what has already been there.
While perhaps not weaving tales of same-sex romance, the stalwarts of outlaw country certainly represented the misfits, the drunks, the delinquents, and bad men and women. Johnny Cash sang about prison and killing a man in Reno just to watch him die, while Loretta Lynn threatened to take some bitch to fist city. And, along with that violence came a lot of yearning heartache like Patsy Cline singing about falling to pieces. If these musicians aren’t necessarily “Queer,” they’re certainly queer as understood as strange outcasts set apart from society.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, this depraved outlaw mentality got replaced by some suburban country schmaltz. Rather than singing about long black veils, radio-friendly country musicians were caterwauling about thinking tractors are sexy or trucks. What the fuck happened?! Blech! And this country has basically ruined it for the rest of us as it is stuck in some heteronormative and often toxically masculine rut. It’s also disproportionately white. There’s a reason Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” wasn’t placed on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. *side eye*
This is the country music, which Peck seems to be rebelling against, while paying tribute to the greats of the past. As he told Billboard Magazine, “Country has a stigma of being conservative and only having one point of view, which is usually a straight white male…And to an extent, it has for a long time in parts of it, but there’s also a lot of incredible marginalized voices coming from country music, and there always have been.”
The embrace of inserting marginalized narratives into country is witnessed most profoundly in Peck’s lyrics, which are heavily influenced by the storytelling of vintage country, but with a queer twist. Beyond the aforementioned “Big Sky,” the first song “Dead of Night” follows two hustlers as they ride through the countryside spending “Johnny’s cash” (Get it?). And the rest follows from there. From the line regarding meeting “a lot of men who would call me pretty” in “Winds Change” to the sly reference to the cockney rhyming slang term “iron hoof,” in “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call),” queerness is peppered through the album.
Of course, the imagery of the queer cowboy is nothing new. Beyond the obvious Brokeback Mountain reference, there’s Randy Jones, better known as the Cowboy from The Village People, as well as the Divine and Tab Hunter-starring Western Lust in the Dust. Not to mention ridiculous country gay bars like Hell’s Kitchen’s Flaming Saddles Saloon. But, Peck’s gay cowboy aesthetic isn’t so high camp. This isn’t to say Peck isn’t camp entirely, just a different form. There’s enough yeehaw’s and whip sounds, as well as Peck’s proclivity for fringe, to satisfy any denizen of camp like me. The closest reference for Peck’s engagement with queer country is probably Lavender Country, a group formed in 1972 that paired traditional hill/bluegrass country sounds (think The Carter Family) with gay themes in songs like “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” or “Back in the Closet Again.”
Like Lavender Country, Peck has a clear deeply sincere love of the history of country music that comes through on Pony. Even though some more modern influences can be heard, particularly on the maddening driving force of “Buffalo Run,” which reminds me of Sonic Youth, Peck’s instrumentals pay tribute to the former outlaw country, whether the Johnny Cash-like chugging rhythm of “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)” or the raging barn-stormers like “Turn To Hate.” Even the saccharine 1950’s nostalgia of “Roses are Falling” boasts a soulful opening reminiscent of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” and a spoken word bridge that harkens back to Elvis’s classic “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” with Peck stating: “You know, darling, you bring out the worst in me.”
Peck even has his own murder ballad in “Kansas (Remembers Me Now).” Naturally, there’s no engagement with the history of Americana or country music without the tradition of murder ballads. And Peck even queers this by writing from the perspective of notorious killer Perry Smith, who, with his buddy and perhaps unrequited love Dick Hicock, murdered the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959, which was memorialized in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. For those familiar with Capote’s book, Truman took a particular interest in Smith, seeing some kinship between himself and the murderer, as well as his relationship with Hicock. In “Kansas (Remembers Me Now),” Peck emphasizes Smith’s connection with Hicock, singing “Do I regret it? Not a thing, now that Dick’s by my side.” It’s a mournful song, one that ends in increasing static like an old radio transmission from another era as the two murderers presumably go to the gallows.
Taken all together, Peck’s queering of country feels not only like a delicious subversion of the normally white heteronormative country narratives, but a freeing up of possibilities for who can be a cowboy and who can be reflected in country music. Beyond just the representation of queer experiences, Peck’s music videos feature a diverse crew of cowboys, including Black cowboys in both “Big Sky” and “Dead of Night.” While, of course, there have always been Black cowboys, cowboys are rarely, if ever, represented as Black in popular culture. Even in praised contemporary depictions of the Wild West like HBO’s West World, the cowboys are either white or non-Black POC, and seemingly straight.
By inserting other voices into country, Peck is joined by a wider range of musicians who have been using both music and their aesthetics to take back country, from Solange and Cardi B’s recently worn yeehaw outfits to Lil Nas X’s collaboration with Billy Ray Cyrus to even, Mitski’s album title “Be The Cowboy.” All these musicians, including, Peck seem to assert that country is no longer the domain of basic straight white men and a few ladies on popular country radio. Neither are the spaces in which country inhabits. Since so much queer creative output has been relegated to the urban imaginary, what Peck does is invite the potential to fantasize about backroads, honky-tonk bars and canyon roads. That roses can also fall for hustlers and gay cowboys. Oh, roses are fallin’ for you…