Enigmatic gay country star Orville Peck released his debut album Pony last year. Peck famously wears a showy, fringed mask in all of his public appearances. Sometimes it’s glittery and bedazzled; sometimes it’s made of leather, and paired with the right pair of chaps, works almost like a kink object. He refuses to say why, and though his identity is an open secret at this point, keeping up the charade is part of the fun. Like Sia’s face-hiding wig, it ostensibly helps keeps the person behind the music at a remove, presumably allowing listeners to focus on the music — but it doesn’t really work like that, because it constructs an iconography and a mysterious aura that paradoxically makes the artist himself more interesting and fun.
This weekend, Peck has pulled a Lady Gaga and followed up his well-received debut and extended his breakthrough era with an even-better EP. Part of what makes Peck so great is that, despite the way one might expect a gay man who loves glitter and sparkles and leather to approach making country music, there’s not a hint of camp or irony in the actual music itself. On Show Pony, despite the gayer name, the songs aren’t even country-pop (save the Shania Twain collaboration — more on that in a second); they’re classic, Johnny Cash-style, vocals-and-storytelling-forward evocations of Americana and the pull of the open road, mournful memorials to loves found and lost. He’s an old-school cowboy balladeer, not… whatever Luke Bryant is.
After a pair of excellent singles (Summertime and No Glory in the West, the latter a gorgeous ballad about the hollowness of the myth of the American frontier), Peck launched Show Pony this weekend with a music video collaboration featuring Shania Twain. Legends Never Die sees the pair performing at a socially-distant drive-in concert attended by none other than reigning RuPaul’s Drag Race superstar Jaida Essence Hall. Shania sounds better than she has in a very long time, her gorgeous rasp pairing perfectly with his expressive baritone. If that Bebe Rexha / Florida Georgia Line song topped the charts for so long, this very well could be Peck’s first massive hit.
Aside from Legends Never Die, most of Show Pony is a lot slower and more emotional. Summertime and No Glory in the West are both great, but my favorite track on the EP is Drive Me, Crazy. It’s Peck’s requisite “I love my truck” country song, but he queers the trope — he’s not the type to give you a boot-stomping barnstormer about girls and beer and pickups. Instead, Drive Me, Crazy is a lonesome ballad about two long-haul truckers falling in love thanks to long drives on the empty road, chasing each other’s taillights through the night, chatting on the radio to keep each other company. “Said it was you and me ’til we died / So hands on the wheel and let’s drive,” he sings.
He’s not just proud someone thinks his truck is sexy, the way lots of bro-country singers are; he thinks someone else’s truck is sexy, too, playing on truck stops as cruising spaces and the phallic imagery inherent in guiding eighteen-wheelers through tunnels. “Each tunnel we take, my heart on the brakes / The road doesn’t matter, it’s how you haul,” he says.
And later: “Tall tales we make up, our eyes on the road / Nothin’ lasts forever, that’s how it goes / Never thought I’d learn to love the snow / Breaker-breaker, break hearts, 10-4, daddy-o…” It’s ultimately a very sad, lonely song, with gorgeous vocals and evocative imagery, a plea for connection in a vast and empty world. The song ends on the image of headlights receding in the distance as the singer pleads for an answer. I can’t get enough.
The one track that doesn’t really work for me is Kids. On its own, the song about friendships would probably be fine, but sonically it sounds so similar to No Glory in the West and Drive Me, Crazy, and the lyrics aren’t distinctive enough for me, that the EP lags a bit in the middle.
However, Show Pony closes with a (sorry) show-stopping cover of Reba McEntire’s Fancy. Whereas Reba’s more famous cover of the Bobbie Gentry original is one of those songs that mostly sounds light and fun until you actually pay attention the lyrics, Peck wrings bitterness and spite out of every line, putting his emotive vocals to their best use on the album. He wisely doesn’t change the gendered lyrics except one — “Staring back from the looking glass, there stood a woman where a half-grown boy had stood,” he marvels.
In his hands, Fancy isn’t just a story of a single mother helping her daughter turn to prostitution to support herself as a way out of poverty; here, the song could be in conversation with tropes about gay boys who are too close to their mothers and turn to cross-dressing, a la Norman Bates. But it’s prideful and defiant, too, a statement about how the singer is grateful for his momma’s help in realizing the woman he was always meant to be; despite the anger in Peck’s voice at the system that forced this to happen (listen to how derisively he spits the line “I charmed a king, a congressman, and the occasional aristocrat”), the song could also read as a statement of gratitude from a queer boy (or a trans woman) to a supportive mother.
It’s a haunting note to end the album on, and it’s the perfect example of Peck’s subversive project of queering country norms and not just carving out a space for himself in the genre, but insisting that the space has always been there. And given how fully-realized Show Pony is, Orville Peck is here to stay.
By Eric Langberg
Orville Peck’s Show Pony EP is out now. Listen and download Legends Never Die here: https://orvillepeck.lnk.to/LND
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