Where have all the cowboys gone?
I’ll wait for you to finish belting the rest of that song. It’s hard to resist Paula Cole’s 1990s classic, but if we suppress the urge to run to Sing Sing to furiously (and drunkenly) yodel, “Where is my John Wayne?” we can take her question seriously. I mean, where exactly have all the cowboys gone?
Despite the plethora of people ironically sporting cowboy hats in tech hubs like Austin (I even spotted a few Stetson hats in photos of the front row of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s Austin shows. I blame The Birthday Party’s Tracy Pew), America doesn’t seem to be the same land of the romantic outlaw cowboy figure anymore. Rather than roaming the purple mountains and fruited plains, the United States in 2022 seems like meandering around an endless decaying strip mall of social inequity, deteriorating chain stores, and exploitative Amazon warehouses, all scented with that grotesque fake burger stench that McDonald’s pipes into their franchises. Instead of the freedom of the open road (not when gas is $5 a gallon in some parts of the country), we’ve got a renter’s dystopia where nobody owns anything, with the investment companies like Blackstone gobbling up the housing market, except loads of credit and student loan debt. It’s a nation where our absurdist politics has finally boiled down to, to quote comedian Tim Dillon, “either a deep longing for or a deep fear of a trans Mickey Mouse.” A nation whose biggest selling point (and scam)—the American Dream—has disintegrated into selling a jpg as an NFT in the hopes to sneak a sale by before the inevitable and quickly approaching crash.
Is it any wonder, then, that some of us are wandering around our decrepit urban environments daydreaming about a cowboy figure to ride into town—on horseback, of course—to save this strapping Americana fantasy? Well, look no farther! Responding to an observation that “There ain’t no cowboys left,” country musician Orville Peck asserts in the song “Lafayette” on his recently released sophomore album Bronco: “But they ain’t met me and they ain’t met you, Lafayette.” And he’s not kidding! Yee-haw!
As you dedicated, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, may remember, we praised Peck’s outlaw country previously, focusing on his debut album Pony, which featured Orville’s Roy Orbison wail, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard bleakness, and a little dash of Sonic Youth cacophony. With lyrics about (drag) queens of the rodeo, the Clutter family murders, falling in love with a rider, and seeing boys as they walk on by at the Chicken Ranch outside of Las Vegas, Pony was a revelation steeped in Americana roots while being thoroughly and unabashedly queer.
As the equestrian title may indicate, Bronco continues the themes that emerged on Peck’s debut album while widening both his cinematic aural and lyrical landscape. If Pony was the young buck upstart, Bronco is fully grown yet untamable. The stark simplicity of some of the music on Pony fades into a richer, more expansive, and mature sound, even adding strings on the dramatic “Kalahari Down” and “Let Me Drown.” This sonic growth can be seen most explicitly in the liner notes with almost double the musicians collaborating on Bronco—many of whom may be recognizable to anyone who saw Peck’s 2019 tour, which marked the transformation of Peck from a solo figure into a full band. This includes the exquisite Bria Salmena whose sublime whiskey-soaked voice makes a surprise appearance on the album’s final duetted track “All I Can Say.”
This is not to say Peck abandoned his quintessential mix of country twang and glam and post-punk influences, an unmistakable combination for those of us who can enjoy both Loretta Lynn and Lydia Lunch. In fact, Peck’s clear understanding and love for the history of country music and choice to filter it through the legacy of punk and post-punk reminds me of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, both some of the more country-inflected songs by The Gun Club, especially “Mother of Earth” from 1982’s Miami, and the posthumous Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project’s album We Are Only Riders. Decidedly more country than the blues sound of The Gun Club or Pierce’s later albums like Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee and Cypress Grove with Willie Love, We Are Only Riders was culled from tapes discovered after Pierce’s death and recorded by a group of musicians like Mark Lanegan (RIP), my beloved Nick Cave, and Pierce’s beloved Debbie Harry (whose cover of “Lucky Jim” may just be the best on the album). Like Pierce, Peck’s music transcends simplistic pastiche and sounds, despite its obvious inspirations, wholly authentic and original.
Of course, Elvis still looms large on Bronco. So much so that Pitchfork reviewed the album as sounding mostly “like a gothic Elvis Presley.” As if that’s a bad thing! Hey—some of our entire musical tastes could be described as that! Nevertheless, Bronco makes Elvis’s influence even more explicit. Whereas Pony’s schmaltzy ballad “Roses are Falling” mirrored the spoken-word breakdown of Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, here Peck names the King directly on “Outta Time”: “She tells me she don’t like Elvis. I say, ‘I want a little less conversation please!’” It’s also hard not to conjure up the image of Elvis in Peck’s vocal delivery, from his seductive, lip-curled croon to his even more unrestrained howls. In particular, the breakdown of “The Curse of the Blackened Eye” reveals just how much Peck has been listening to some of Elvis’s later 1970s material.
Besides Elvis, Peck has also clearly been internalizing a lot of Lana Del Rey, as well as her own California Dreamin’ precedents, from The Mamas & The Papas to Laurel Canyon folk. This isn’t that much of a surprise. Peck is a known Lana stan, covering the eponymous opener from Lana’s Norman Fucking! Rockwell album on his 2019 tour. But, even without that obvious link, Pony’s lyrics also read like a country-fried Lana; Bronco is no different. In particular, Lana’s idyllic Golden State paradise can be seen in Peck’s unlikely pairing of cowboy twang with references to iconic LA locales, such as Mulholland (“Mulholland’s gold and you’re awake babe”) in “Trample Out the Days” and the Pacific Coast Highway (“Headed down the PCH to that Malibu line”) in “Outta Time.” Even lyrics that aren’t focused on Our Lady of California’s terrain mimic Lana’s trademark mix of contemporary slang and timeless romanticism. Take, for instance, “C’mon Baby, Cry” with lyrics like “I can tell you’re a sad boy just like me,” an echo of Ultraviolence’s “Sad Girl” and “Pretty When You Cry.” And I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out the copious reflections on the imagery of riding (“Some of us, we just gotta ride” in “Blush”) and driving fast (“You drive real fast and I can tell that it’s just not your lucky day” in “Trample Out the Days”), both of which are tropes that are inextricable from Lana’s entire oeuvre.
Similar to Lana’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club, a “Wild at Heart” road trip across America, Bronco is a rambling record. This manic ride is best seen in the song “Any Turn,” a patter song that veers dangerously towards Billy Joel’s cheesy “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but thankfully lands somewhere closer to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (likely thanks to the Duane Eddy-like guitar riff). “Any Turn” centers around the head-spinning flurry of the nomadic lifestyle of the road (“Swinging at the Troubadour, Dee’s, skate Fairfax, Midtown, big down, roof’s gone, wrong town”). The rest of the album, though not as frenzied, is equally restless and wandering. Though recorded mostly live in Nashville, Bronco is a madcap journey from Florida’s Daytona Beach to M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I to Louisiana to London, not exactly the land of the cowboys.
Most importantly, references to Peck’s own homeland, South Africa, appear frequently throughout the album, which has the added effect of making Bronco feel significantly more personal than Pony. Especially with his trademark Lone Ranger mask and pseudonym, it can be easy to slot Peck as purely a theatrical act. As one surly commenter on our previous album review pointed out recently, Peck holds the audience at a distance by not revealing his true identity. But, enough of Peck—or whoever he is—is there. Pony’s listener can certainly glean the very real experience of depression on melancholy songs like “Hope to Die” or “Nothing Fades Like the Light.” Yet, the addition of Peck’s own childhood roots on Bronco lets listeners see what’s behind the mask, even just slightly. The most obvious tribute to South Africa is “Kalahari Down,” which gets its name from the Kalahari Desert and traces Peck’s yearning for the place he up and left. As he sings, “Left to roam on a reckless wander.” This isn’t the only directly named homage to South Africa, though, which also includes a line in the diaristic “City of Gold”: “Tell ‘em I’m back on Southern time. To the city of gold and, baby, I’m told that Jozi is doing just fine” (Jozi meaning Johannesburg).
It’s this precarious balancing act between the wholly personal and the utter high rhinestone cowboy camp that makes Bronco so captivating. Peck inched towards this full embrace of camp on his previous release, the EP Show Pony, particularly the song “Drive Me, Crazy.” Unquestionably the best song on that short release, “Drive Me, Crazy” is an Elton John-inspired send-up of long-haul trucker rough trade, a swooning ballad about truckers finding companionship on that lost highway (“Breaker-breaker, break hearts, 10-4, daddy-o”). The opaque narrative becomes clearer by the end of the song with a deep-voiced spoken outro radio transmission that says, “Hey, breaker, saw you pass me earlier in the double and I caught a glimpse of you looking in the mirror. Just thought maybe you saw me as well and you could 10-22 in the rubber…those double lanes only come around so often.” *wink wink* Masculinity, unlike femininity, is always considered more authentic and less theatrical, and therefore less camp. Yet the thirsty trucker homoeroticism is so overt and overwrought on “Drive Me, Crazy” that it’s hard to see it as anything but camp.
This discernment isn’t a problem with cowboys. From the ten-gallon hat, chaps, suede fringe, and spurs style to the wide stance posturing, the cowboy is about as camp as a masculine figure can get, gay or straight. It’s no mistake that one of the Village People—Randy Jones—is a cowboy. But if we’re talking about gay cowboys, the benchmark for representation has to be 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, a much-maligned interpretation of out on the range yearning by a straight director, Ang Lee, and two straight actors, Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack) and Heath Ledger (Ennis). But, don’t listen to the perpetually online who has to check everyone’s identity before making an assessment. Brokeback Mountain is a bonafide camp classic, if you can look past the cinematic grandeur, Oscar-baiting seriousness, and Heath Ledger’s mumbling delivery. Remember Anne Hathaway’s blonde wig that would make Tammy Wynette seethe with envy? I’ll never forget it! I mean, there’s a reason Lil Nas X, who resurrected camp last year, more recently included a short visual tribute to the film in his music video for “THATS WHAT I WANT.”
While Brokeback may be the gay cowboy camp classic, we now have a newer contender for closeted cowboys with 2021’s The Power of the Dog. Whereas both Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack and Heath Ledger’s Ennis were sympathetic characters, Benedict Cumberbatch’s sullen Phil is a bitchy, banjo-strumming douchebag whose entire life seems to revolve around being an asshole for no reason to his brother’s drunk wife Rose (played ingeniously by Kristen Dunst) and her creepy and homicidal (turns out) son, Peter. Well, there is a reason—a doomed deflection from his very clear love and longing for his late mentor, the aptly named for this album review, Bronco Henry. Phil’s ache for Bronco Henry is depicted oh-so-subtly when he rolls around in the woods, masturbating and sniffing Henry’s handkerchief.
Even though both of these films were nominated for Academy Awards, they both also show the strangely precarious place the gay cowboy sits in our thoroughly divided and psychotic culture: as both too conservative and too binary for our current queer politics and still too goddamn gay for those on the conservative end of the spectrum. Case in point: within the last year, a trans activist Joel Rivera shouted in Washington Square Park: “This is not Brokeback Mountain. This is real fucking life!” and Western curmudgeon Sam Elliot pearl-clutched about Benedict Cumberbatch’s chaps on Marc Maron’s podcast. Calling The Power of the Dog “a piece of shit,” Elliot hilariously ranted: “That’s what all these fucking cowboys in that movie looked like. They’re all running around in chaps and no shirts, there’s all these allusions to homosexuality throughout the fucking movie.” Tell us how you really feel, Sam!
It’s within this fraught cultural territory that Orville Peck emerges, with a clear awareness of all these dichotomies and a willingness to wholly commit to his cowboy image, reflecting, as Mark Booth says, “To be camp is to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits.” And boy, does he. Just watch Peck’s music video for “Daytona Sand,” a whirlwind trip around Miami that begins with hitchhiking in an 18-wheeler (perhaps a subtle callback to “Drive Me, Crazy) and ends with Peck galloping from the cops on horseback and surfing on the top of a truck. Somewhere along the way in his less murderous yet no less unhinged Andrew Cunanan-like Miami spree, which also includes stealing a convertible and waking up bleary-eyed and hungover on a beach, Peck makes a pit stop to harass patrons at Miami’s oldest dive bar, Mac’s Club Deuce, a neon version of Urban Cowboy‘s watering hole, Gilley’s Club.
While Peck’s music videos have always been camp, the utter commitment to the marginal wasn’t always so reflected in the music. Though Pony’s downtrodden sound is certainly camp, in a similar way that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ cover of Johnny Cash’s “The Singer” on Kicking Against the Pricks is camp, it pales in comparison to hollering “See the cowboy sing!” at the top of his lungs in “Bronco,” emoting “Bury my heart at the rodeo” on “Trample Out the Days,” or beckoning “Saddle up and ride on down” on “Blush.” In all these lyrical interpretations of the cowboy—cowboy as the macho man troubadour, cowboy as the heartbroken loner, cowboy as the seductive hypermasculine erotic ideal, Peck is playfully toying with and inhabiting the role of not only the pervasive cowboy figure in American culture but a thoroughly gay one.
Yet, despite how over-the-top, how camp these lyrics undeniably are, Peck delivers them with utmost striking sincerity, showing just how dedicated he is to the cowboy fantasy and how much he takes it seriously. And he does take it seriously, as proved in a recent interview with Vulture in which he discusses his childhood interest in cowboys: “I was drawn to the idea that somebody who was ostracized or singular, and kind of on the outskirts, could become an anti-hero and find power in their loneliness and solitude. I only know that looking back now, but as a kid, I feel like I related subconsciously.”
Obviously, sincerity is not antithetical to camp. In fact, I’d go so far as to assert that it’s what separates the true camp from the rest of what most often try to label as our beloved aesthetic. Anyone can do irony. Anyone can roll their eyes and wink while singing “Yippee ki yi yay.” But, what about crooning “Yippee yo ki yay” with undeterred solemnity as Peck does on “Kalahari Down”? Expert level stuff. As Christopher Isherwood has described, “You can’t camp about something if you don’t take it seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.”
Peck echoed Isherwood’s explanation of camp in an interview with Billboard Magazine: “Some people think that, in order to be sincere, something can’t also be showy and performative. For me, I think it’s actually when you combine those two things that it almost becomes the most sincere. All of the kind of extra stuff I put on top of the sincerity is still coming from an authentic place—all of it is just me being myself…Instead, of whispering who I am, I’m screaming it.” Well, we heard you, Orville! This dynamic camp combo is exactly what Bronco achieves by filtering the heartbreak, the sorrow, the homesickness, and the vulnerability, all of which are all quite audible on the album (I mean, it does open with the line “Buddy, we got major blues” and doesn’t let up), through that lonesome cowboy, inextricable from Wild Wild West myth, Hollywood schlock, and gay fantasy.