Orville Peck grew up loving cowboys and western movies, but it wasn't usually the sheriff in the white hat that caught his eye. Instead, Peck was enamored with the mysterious, nameless strangers, often the story's anti-heroes, who rode into town and gave little indication about their past or where they came from.
Like the loner rebels of classic westerns, Peck doesn't divulge much information about his life before he became Orville Peck, the masked man of country music. He prefers to let listeners unravel the mystery themselves through his stellar debut album Pony (released earlier this year via Sub Pop records). And while it's not every day you see a country singer wearing a Lone Ranger-style latex mask with fringe, Peck's aesthetic is rooted in a bygone era of country music, when artists such as Porter Wagoner, Webb Pierce and, later, Gram Parsons donned rhinestone-studded Nudie suits that reflected another side of themselves.
"The kind of country that I really love, aesthetic-wise, is heartbroken men singing dramatic songs," Peck tells Wide Open Country. "They're these tough guys wearing bedazzled suits and rodeo fringe. That's a huge part of the country that I love and the country I feel inspired by. I think it's definitely an ode to that."
The Man Behind the Mask
Peck says the purpose of the mask isn't to hide from audiences, but rather to connect to them in new ways.
"I think people assume that when I put that mask on, it's me trying to conceal something or hide something or put something it between me and the listener or me and the audience. But the real interesting thing I've found is that it actually allows me to be really, really open about the kind of things I sing about and the stories that I tell," Peck says. "I think it actually ends up connecting me closer to the listener and closer to the audience. It also of course gives it an element of mystery I suppose, but I think that's not in a way for me to create anonymity or try and stop anyone from knowing who I am or what I look like. I think it's more so that people can also fall into the romance and the mystery of it as well. They can imagine their own person under the mask or fill in the blanks themselves. I appreciate that as a fan of music. I like when I can also be a part of the story myself or create a bit of the story myself."
The 12-song Pony is a mesmerizing, genre-bending journey filled with Roy Orbison-esque lovelorn country ballads, Old West boot-stompers and cowpunk trail songs that recall fellow sonic-fusers like Lone Justice and Rank and File. While the album, which features odes to drag queens ("Queen of the Rodeo") and love songs from the perspective of a queer man, is a far cry from what you'll hear on the average mainstream country radio station, Peck says country music has always been much more progressive than some give it credit for.
"I have a lot of respect for country music and I have a lot of respect for where country music came from. In my mind, I've always felt that there have been so many rebellious, subversive voices in country music," says Peck, who counts Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Reba McEntire among his country influences. "There's so many people within country music that I always felt were rebellious and actually pushing the envelope."
Peck values country's tradition of storytelling, weaving tales of outcasts, heartbreak and loneliness. In the process, he delivers something else that's missing from modern country radio: sad songs.
'Anybody Can Be a Cowboy'
If you've been paying attention to your Internet memes, you know that cowboy culture, lovingly dubbed the "yeehaw agenda," is on the rise. More and more stars from all musical genres are donning ten-gallon hats, western chaps and cowboy boots. The hit song "Old Town Road" initially gained popularity with kids on the social media app Tik Tok using it as the soundtrack to their cowboy and cowgirl transformations.
When asked what he thinks about the rise of this so-called "yeehaw-naissance," Peck, a self-identified cowboy who effortlessly drops a baritone "yeehaw" in the middle of a song, says the more the merrier.
"It's something that I've always identified with and I've always found so thrilling. I think it's the easiest thing in the world to be a fan of country music," Peck says. "I'm not really sure what's really spurred it, but I'm so happy about it. People keep asking me if I'm annoyed that there's this sort of 'yeehaw agenda' or this irony or whatever, but I think that country music at its heart is about storytelling and it's about connecting someone to something that is personal, but it becomes personal for them as well. I think any genre of music or anybody can relate to that."
The cowboy spirit has always been about living life on your own terms, Peck says.
"I think the idea of the cowboy ethos -- the older I've gotten, it's meant a lot more to me on the philosophical level. I think part of being a cowboy is a sense of solitude, but also pride within that and adventure within that kind of solitude. I've traveled around a lot and I've lived in so many different places. I feel like I'm constantly on the move. I think that's a pretty classic trait of cowboys," Peck says. "I think there's a few different things that it speaks to. In this day and age, a lot of people feel marginalized. It seems like there's a lot more emphasis on the individual, which I think is really important. There's a lot of power in that with the motif and the philosophy of a cowboy. It's just being an individual and kind of riding into town on your own terms. I think anybody can be a cowboy."
As an LGBT country artist, Peck is proud to represent an underrepresented demographic in the genre.
"There has just been a lack of diversity in some ways in country music and I think now that seems to really be changing a lot," Peck says. "I get a lot of gay people or queer people or just a lot of people who feel marginalized for whatever reason reaching out and saying 'I grew up on a ranch' or 'I live in Wyoming and I love country music and I feel like it's such a part of who I am but I never really saw myself represented in country music.' That's a really amazing, touching thing for me to hear that people connect with me in that way and I get to represent a different perspective for people who are fans of country and love country like I did growing up."
With Pony, the lone cowboy maintains his air of mystery. But through the connections forged through his songs, he's feeling much less like an outsider.
"I also hear from people who are middle-aged, straight, white men who reach out to me and say 'Every morning my wife and I drive our kids to school and we're all singing 'Dead of Night' in the car. We really love your music -- it reminds us of Roy Orbison.' That's also really touching to me because I grew up feeling like such an outsider to some of that," Peck says. "The fact that that demographic can also connect to my music -- that's really special and I think it speaks to what country music is. It really connects people."
Overall Peck is currently on tour across the U.S. and Canada.