Features, Print July 19, 2021

Orville Peck: Home On The Fringe

by Dan England

Orville Peck prepared to sing “Born This Way,” and he felt nervous. He knew what the song meant to Lady Gaga’s career, their followers and to himself.

It was a thrill to cover it, even to do it in his traditional country style with a voice that recalls Elvis in addition to legends of the Grand Ole Opry. But the song is also an iconic emblem of the LBGTQ community, and Peck is a proud member as a gay man. He didn’t want to let them down.

“It can be a daunting thing,” Peck said in an interview with BandWagon. “That song in particular means a lot to a lot of people. I just approached it the way I [approach] my own music, or anything I do. You have to be respectful, and you have to do it your way. I think authenticity wins at the end of the day.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Gaga’s team chose Peck as part of a group of artists celebrating the 10th anniversary of her classic album. He’s known for handmade, fringed masks that cover everything but his blue eyes. His videos look like previews on the Vegas strip. And yet, his self-produced album draws heavily on classic country influences, with songs such as “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call).” Further titles include “Old River,” “Roses are Falling” and “Queen of the Rodeo.” The New Yorker reviewed his debut album, Pony, by comparing his voice to Roy Orbison. In a rare profile, done by the New York Times, he said, “Honestly, there is nothing I love more than being around a horse.”

Orville Peck performs live at the Terry Bison Ranch in Cheyenne, Wyoming on Saturday, July 24 with Wheelwright and Gasoline Lollipops. Photo by Louie Banks for GQ UK

His authenticity, he said, is why he’s friends with classic country music stars, and why they’ve embraced him. Past stars, such as Willie Nelson, who sang about pot, and Garth Brooks, who brought rock and pop to his music, and Shania Twain, who flaunted her sexuality and independent strength, were all seen as outlaws, or perhaps “not country enough.” They can relate to him as fellow outlaws.

“I don’t get blowback from traditional country fans, I get it from modern country fans who believe what’s country is what’s on the radio, that doesn’t sound very country at all to me,” Peck tells BandWagon. “There’s always been something new introduced to that genre, whether it’s an instrument or Willie singing about weed or it’s me singing about men and wearing a mask. Everyone freaks out and says it’s not country, and then slowly it becomes part of it. I don’t mind that blowback. That means I’m doing it right. I take it as a challenge.”

Peck seems to enjoy turning country music on its ten-gallon hat. “True country music is not about instrumentation, it’s not about the color of your skin, and it’s not about your sexual orientation,” Peck said in his official bio. “It’s about the crossroads of drama, storytelling, and sincerity.”

The point of country, he said, is to tell his story in the only musical genre that welcomes that kind of deep introspection. Only one song on his debut album, Pony, was fictional. “Queen of the Rodeo,” for instance, was about real drag queens, not blonde-haired binary beauties from Kansas, and “Big Sky” was about his difficult relationships with a biker, a boxer and a jail officer.

“It’s the only music that can just grab you and tell your story, even if it may not be your story,” Peck said. “I would listen to Patsy Cline when I was 16 and just cry. Those stories resonate with people for years and years and years. I actually think country is the most unifying genre. It’s just gotten a bad rap for a long time.”

Peck just spent two weeks in the studio with Miley Cyrus, who identifies as pansexual and has a place as another country music outlier. The two also performed for Cyrus’ Pride Month special via Peacock, released on June 25, at the iconic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The moment wasn’t lost on him or Cyrus or others who performed, he said. He called it “monumental.”

“I think it’s important that someone like Miley knows how to use their platform to make progress,” Peck said. “It was another incredible moment for me, for country music and for the community. We all knew what we were a part of.”

See Orville Peck live and in person Saturday, July 24 at Terry Bison Ranch with Wheelwright and Gasoline Lollipops. 51 I-25 Service Rd, Cheyenne, Wyoming – Tickets at www.gochinook.com