Is Orville Peck the Outlawiest Country Music Outlaw?

Orville Peck
Carlos Santolalla/Courtesy Sub Pop Records

Let’s get this out of the way: Orville Peck wears a mask. Any press coverage of the Canadian-based country-music singer is all but obligated to mention this. But attire is hardly the most interesting thing about the pseudonymous crooner. On Peck’s full-length debut, Pony, released in March, he sings about the highway at night, jail, and revenge—all perennial themes in country music. But Peck manages to subvert the tropes of the genre, with a healthy dose of desperado flair and cowboy camp aesthetics.

Since releasing Pony, Peck has sold out shows across the country, owing, in part, to his persona as a country loner, veiled in fringe and heartbreak. And though his identity remains a mystery, his sexuality doesn’t: He’s openly gay, and one of the few country-music artists who is. Recently, Men’s Journal caught up with Peck by phone from Toronto, Ontario, to talk about the current state of country music, cowboy fashion, being a 21st-century outlaw, and more.

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Men’s Journal: I don’t know if this is true or just part of the Orville Peck myth, but you’re from the Canadian Badlands, right?

Orville Peck: Well, I’m actually not from North America at all. By the time I was 21, I’d lived in five different countries, so I’ve been all over. But I have spent a lot of time in Canada. There’s no shortage of cowboys here, which is part of the appeal. I just played the world-famous Calgary Stampede, in fact. Canada has played a big role in the history of country music. Artists like K.D. Lang, Neil Young, Great Speckled Bird, and Shania Twain are all from there.

You get a lot of attention because of your masks. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Sun Records artist Jimmy “Orion” Ellis wore one, too. Was he an inspiration?

Yeah, of course. It’s funny because people think what I do is very different, or that I’m somehow trying to subvert country or whatever. But I’m not the first masked country artist by any stretch. I would argue that Johnny Cash wore a mask. He built an entire career on being this kind of incarcerated outlaw. The truth is he never spent any time in prison unless he was performing in one. Country has a long history of creating legends.

Speaking of Johnny Cash, he had his signature look, as did other stars, like Gene Autry with his gun holsters and Gram Parsons with his marijuana nudie suits. What inspired your style?

I love Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors and that whole era of fringe and rhinestones, color and flamboyance, like with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. I also really like ’80s country, with Reba McEntire’s rodeo-wear and statement outfits, and Tim McGraw’s white T-shirts and bootcut jeans in the 1990s. That said, my style draws more from James “Orion” Ellis, the Lone Ranger, and the Western archetype of a cowboy hat and a handkerchief over someone’s face. That’s my concept of cowboys. It’s the anti-hero, the spaghetti Western character.

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How would you describe your music to a Froggy FM listener who loves country but hasn’t come across your music?

It’s a love letter to the legacy of country music through my own perspective. You’re going to hear some stuff you recognize. And some stuff that you don’t. Either way, it’s a transparent story about who I am.

You sing about falling in love with jailers, boxers, bikers, and bad boys in general. I’d consider that outlaw country, by lyrical content alone. Would you classify your music as outlaw country?

I think so. I definitely take a lot of inspiration from the outlaw country tradition—Willie, Waylon, Johnny. The combination of drama and exaggeration and style in tandem with sincerity. Merle Haggard was the epitome of a cowboy in that sense because he created this really stylized persona and aesthetic. His lyrics and content is very sincere and genuine. That’s outlaw country to me.

Orville Peck performs live on stage at Barboza on May 18, 2019 in Seattle, Washington.
Orville Peck performs live on stage at Barboza on May 18, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. Jim Bennett / Getty Images

What makes an outlaw today, in the 21st century?

It’s funny. I think there are way more outlaws now than there have ever been. We’re living in divisive times: Something cyclical happens every generation, and it’s happening right now. People get fed up with the system that’s been laid in place for them. The facade that we are in control starts to slip away. That’s kind of how I felt my whole life. I felt pretty marginalized and inherently alone my whole life. I found ways to embrace it, and that’s what being an outlaw is about—being on the outside of things and still keeping your head high, blazing your own trail, even if you have to do some bushwhacking in the process.

In country music, traditions are starting to be upended in terms of gender and sexuality. Lil Nas X, for one, recently came out as gay, and Kacey Musgraves has advocated on the behalf of the LGBTQ community. Has this change contributed to your success?

There has always been an underground to country music that is subversive and diverse. There have been different perspectives and different voices. There have always been people of color making country music. There have been gay people making country music. From Charley Pride to Lavender Country, these artists have existed if you know where to look for them. But the nice thing now is that the walls are finally crumbling and people don’t have to look hard anymore, because these artists are coming to the foreground. It’s important, and it’s been a long time coming.

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Do you think country music will die if it doesn’t expand its fanbase?

Yeah, it has to adapt. I mean, the fact that there’s trap-country—the sub-genre crossover between country and rap—doesn’t surprise me. And it shouldn’t surprise anybody who knows anything about music. Eventually, the gatekeepers in places like Nashville—where the people at the top are desperately trying to control the narrative—are just going to disappear. For now, though, most people’s perception of country is a white guy singing about a truck, which is unfortunate, because that’s not all there is.

So who is your favorite outlaw icon?

Like I said, my philosophy is that anyone can be an outlaw. Nina Simone was a really cool outlaw cowboy. I don’t think she ever wore a cowboy hat, and I don’t think she made country music, but she blazed her own trail and stuck to her guns. And I think Nina Simone had a gun, actually.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. First published July 16, 2019.

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