With his biblical-sounding name, slick-backed black hair and dark clothes, Zephaniah OHora could be an assassin in a 50s B-movie. Listen to his debut album This Highway, and you'll swear he has stepped out of a bygone era with the way he effortlessly incorporates the classic Nashville Sound and Bakersfield honky tonk into his music.
It's easy to imagine hearing his songs, like "I Do Believe I've Had Enough," "She's Leaving In The Morning," and "I Can't Let Go (Even Though I Set You Free)," being played on a jukebox sandwiched between Ray Price and Wynn Stewart. And that's how he wanted it.
"From the start, I set out to make an honest country record," OHora says. "One that honored the tradition of the format, and could tell a little bit of my story."
One of the record's triumphs is how well he shows his respect to these country music traditions without being straitjacketed by them. "High Class City Girl From The Country," an album standout, sounds like it could be an old Glen Campbell chestnut. But OHora gives the lyrics just enough modern touches to make the song feel fresh and relevant.
OHora has his own "country to the city" journey to becoming a country musician; however, it wasn't a typical route. The New Hampshire native, who grew up playing music in church worship meetings, headed earlier this decade, not to Nashville but New York City. There, he got a job in 2013 as the booker at the then-new, now-hot Brooklyn country/roots music bar Skinny Dennis (named after Guy Clark's one-time bassist).
He soon became the frontman of Honeyfingers, which basically served as the bar's house band. Spending many nights playing old Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubb and other classic country tunes started to influence OHora's songwriting. With Honeyfingers' guitarist and acclaimed session ace Jim Campilongo (The Little Willies with Norah Jones), OHora formed the 18 Wheelers, a group he describes as a "novelty band" that played the obscure trucker country tunes that they both loved.
After OHora showed Campilongo some of his songs, the focus of the 18 Wheelers shifted to being the backing band for OHora's originals. Campilongo plays lead guitar and co-produced This Highway, which also includes such Skinny Dennis regulars as guitarist/co-producer Luca Benedetti, fiddler Alex Hargreaves, pianist Roy Williams and pedal steel man Jon Graboff (Shooter Jennings, The Cardinals). OHora has called the album "a really beautiful culmination of the amazing people who are involved in that scene... I think the community really made this album."
OHora may think of the album as a community effort, but it features his impressive songs (save for the twangy cover of Frank & Nancy Sinatra's hit "Somethin' Stupid" with OHora being Conway Twitty to Dori Freeman's Loretta Lynn) and his impassioned singing that turn This Highway into something sublime.
This Highway drops on June 9, but you can stream the full album here.