Orville Peck’s Rodeo November 10-12
One of the biggest rising stars in country music is also one of the most unlikely: Orville Peck is a gay Canadian who grew up in South Africa, played in a punk band before going country, and performs onstage behind a tasseled mask with a style that mashes up 50 years of musical ideas. That’s about as far from the traditional ‘cowboy’ image as one could imagine, yet his 2022 Bronco is one of the most energizing country albums to come out in years.
The most notable thing about Orville Peck isn’t his stage persona, his songwriting, or his sexuality. It’s his commanding grandiose voice, sounding like a cross between Elvis and Roy Orbison. In one moment, he’s crooning in a high register like a classic singing cowboy. In another, he dives deep into a painful croak that reminds of Johnny Cash at his most regretfully introspective.
In an era dominated by singers autotuned into soulless mechanical “perfection,” Peck is all the more notable for his willingness to put himself in his work. Every word, every line, he’s swinging for the fences – and he knocks it out of the proverbial park far more often than not.
Make no mistake, this is Peck’s album. Only one track, the album finale “All I Can Say,” features another singer – the oddly uncredited Bria Salmena – providing a soulful duet.
Look past his astounding vocal work, and the musical talent behind his songs is also impressive. Bronco displays a surprising range of styles. It could be summarized as “Elvis does Rebel Country” but even then, the album constantly surprises – such as how the title track starts off with a 60s surf rock riff before somehow seguing right back into country territory without missing a beat. Or how “Iris Rose” features a wistful muted trumpet that recalls some of Herb Alpert’s best stylings.
Perhaps the standout song is “C’mon Baby Cry,” which somehow sounds old and new at once. The composition and hooks feel like they’re out of a 60s breakup song, while still filled with modern energy and production tricks.
Much of this is thanks to producer Jay Joyce, who’s worked with names such as Eric Church and Miranda Lambert. He took Peck from the more stripped-back sound of his debut Pony to the current over-the-top celebration of 20th Century Americana. His backing band – basically the Canadian indie band The Frigs – also deserves full credit for keeping up with all the stylistic shifts, playing with energy that matches Peck’s own.
Lyrically, Bronco covers all the topics you’d expect from classic country: roaming the country, recovering from heartache, searching for love but rarely finding it. That he’s searching for men to love barely makes a difference. Good classic country is still good classic country, while showing that there’s room in the genre for a much broader range of artists.
Peck is fully willing to explore his own pain, singing frankly about suicidal thoughts and his wandering nature. He doesn’t blame others for his failings; he fully recognizes he’s often part of his own problems – a self-awareness that can be rare in modern country.
Fortunately, this isn’t an album that wallows in darkness. Another impressive aspect is its variety, and an awareness that it needs some more upbeat tracks to balance out the heartache. “Any Turn” is a high-energy track with patter-style lyrics that almost border on rap, without truly going there. Likewise, Peck isn’t afraid to camp it up at times, or bring back old cliches that have fallen out of use. This is a man who can sing “yippie ki-yi yay” without a hint of irony, and without the near-obligatory Die Hard reference either.
Bronco is big. It’s audacious. It’s gay in the best ways. It’s absolutely saturated in love for classic Americana. It’s a return of the ramblin’ singin’ cowboy, refreshed for modern audiences.
It would be unfair to say that Bronco is country for people who don’t like country, because anyone who misses the old days of rebel country will find a lot to love here. However, it would be absolutely fair to say Bronco is for people who don’t like modern country. If you’re sick of country songs about anger in small towns, this is exactly the album you need to restore your faith in the American folk tradition.
Unfortunately Orville Peck’s Bronco tour was cancelled while he took some time off, but the reschedule may be just around the corner. This is the perfect time to discover him.