A gay cowboy who sings behind a mask and about whom little is known except that he lives in Toronto (you know, with all those other cowboys), was a punk, an actor and a dancer: Say hello to Orville Peck and his just-released debut, Pony.
Gimmick or not, Peck’s mask-wearing troubadour couldn’t come at a more opportune time, what with the popularity of The Masked Singer on television and Sia’s ongoing love affair with her curtain-length bangs. Whether Orville Peck’s masks are a throwback to anonymity (or the closet) or just give him a sense of liberation (it’s amazing what you’ll do or say when people can’t see your face), it wouldn’t matter if his debut wasn’t such an easy blend of country tropes and indie rock.
Take, for example, the opening track, “Dead of Night.” (The video was shot at the famed Nevada Chicken Ranch.) Lonesome twanged notes set up a lovers’ tryst as the gay cowboy and his partner go for a “ride” (guess which kind) while Peck revs his baritone up into a Roy Orbison falsetto to repeat the chorus: “See the boys as they walk on by.”
“Big Sky,” a banjo-inflected drone of a ballad, is a smooth, deep-voiced tribute to an array of Peck’s recent lovers — a biker, a boxer, a jailor; hell, maybe even the construction worker from the Village People if we’re going for porn archetypes.
Or maybe the alt-country barn-burner “Turn to Hate” would be more to your liking. The video, set in a gay bar, is basically a performance piece of the artist onstage (no backup band) while a diverse array of men, women, sexualities and body types take their turn on the steel bull. Peck, in his sensual vibrato, cautions himself not to “turn to hate” when his lover walks out the door.
Peck, in his low-key way, definitely loves the drama. “Part of telling a good story is that each time you tell the story it gets a little taller,” Peck has said. Maybe that’s why he wants and needs the masks — they allow him the freedom to embellish without recrimination. That may seem like a cop-out, though I find it refreshing. Perhaps the man who goes by Orville Peck took a look around at the pretty gay boys coming up in the country scene (Steve Grand, Brandon Stansell) and wanted to let the songs stand on their own without the distractions of rock hard abs and perfect teeth. (I doubt that Peck’s a troll; what little scruff you can see behind the mask hides a prominent jawline, and his blue eyes are sparkling.) Or it might all be a joke, a performance. The man was — maybe still is — an actor.
It doesn’t matter. Pony, like k.d. lang’s Angel with a Lariat back in 1987, claims a safe space in country music to set forth the same type of wanderlust and yearning, road-tripping and bed-hopping we share with our straight counterparts. Yet Peck’s facsimile of his genre is so close to the real thing it could trick Uncle Jackson or Aunt Maybelline into singing along before discovering the specificities of Peck’s pronouns. At which point they might be so invested themselves they won’t mind going for a ride on this Pony themselves.