New Orville Peck Album ‘Bronco’ Seals the Deal: He’s a First-Rate Country Artist
“I cried a lot writing this album. Not to sound dramatic, but it really is the first thing I’ve truly been just so proud of in my life.” So says country’s most intriguing artist about the new Orville Peck album Bronco, his follow-up release to 2019’s Pony, a worldwide introduction to the bejeweled mask-wearing performer.
Peck — not his real name — isn’t the first gay boy at the rodeo. Lavender Country beat him to it in 1973, and there have been some minimal inroads into the genre over the last 20 or so years, Steve Grand and Lil Nas X being the most famous (though Lil Nas X was just passing through town on the way to pop nirvana).
Yet from the get, Orville Peck felt different. Beneath the role-playing signified by his colorful masks, and despite the fact there was a whiff of the ersatz to his performative stance, he presented more or less authentically. Was it possible that country music truly was — and is — the language of Peck’s soul? The new Orville Peck album Bronco confirms that it unmistakably is.
“I love all genres of music,” he has said. “I grew up loving punk and playing in rock bands; I think it was important for me at a time when I was young and angry. But, yeah, I always secretly wanted to be a country crooner. I wanted to be like Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard.”
Those are high-water marks in the pantheon that have never been approached in contemporary country (alt-country, on the other hand, has come awfully close). Yet the 15 tracks of Bronco make the case for Peck to be considered seriously as a country artist (Pony, as solid as it remains, was drenched in the perfume of its novelty), a first-rate entertainer and a road warrior who’s seen his share of men come and go.
“Daytona Sand” kicks off the record in high style — a thundering barnburner about one of those men who shares Peck’s bed and then, regretfully, disappears to history. Plenty of country stompers follow mixed with a handful of ballads and — Peck’s sweetest spot — midtempo croons. Thanks to his mellifluous tenor punctuated by soprano trills, he’s been described as a cross between Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak, and while that’s true here as well (nowhere more than on the 3:31 of country pop perfection called “C’mon Baby, Cry”), he’s also well acquainted with the songbooks of Bruce Springsteen (the acoustic stroll of “Outta Time”), Dolly Parton (“Hexie Mountains” practically cries out for her harmonies), Glen Campbell (the orchestrated “Kalahari Down”), and many others.
Peck is no purist. Those elements that cross genres are essential to his appeal. Folks who generally distrust or dislike country — often based on stereotypes and assumptions — are drawn to him thanks to those Trojan Horse hooks and flights of vocal fancy. The freight train guitar chug of “Any Turn” rocks hard enough to slip past the post-show threesome that might upset the sensitivities of delicate cis straight white men. And the closing duet “All I Can Say” with Bria Salmena is a leaving song for every sexuality.
Pony, for all its freshness, was a calling card — a getting-to-know-you exploration from a new (or reinvented) artist making his presence known. The new Orville Peck album Bronco — from its hyper-butch title to its muscular travelogue of a few rough years that had more to do with personal upheaval than a global pandemic — knows what you like, and gives it you harder and softer, softer then harder, until you just lay back and enjoy the ride.
The new Orville Peck album Bronco is out now.
Featured image at top: Julia Johnson