Nobody ever remembers everything they want to say during an interview. Particularly when it is about music, and even more when it’s music you love. There is always an artist you want to bring up, one that not only illustrates your point but you want to mention simply because they’ve managed to touch your own being and bringing them up feels good.
My appearance on last week’s episode of Citations Needed, in which I discussed the right’s parasitic relationship with country music, naturally has me thinking of all the things I didn’t have a chance to mention on the show. Key among them is Orville Peck. The frustration (if you can call it that) is particularly pointed given that Peck’s new EP Show Pony had, at the time of the recording, only been out a couple of weeks.
What makes Peck relevant to discussions of country artists who stray from the genre’s supposedly inherent conservatism is, among other things but first and foremost, his queerness. Plenty of writers and devotees have examined and rightly lauded this, so I won’t rehash it here.
What I will say more about is how his queerness resonates across a cultural landscape that is still coming to grips with the idea that non-urban queerness exists. This was on display this past spring, right as lockdown commenced, and nobody could stop talking about Tiger King. Among that series’ many lurid, voyeuristic batfuck-bonkers-isms was the fact that the stridently reactionary, “proud redneck” Joe Exotic is both gay and polyamorous. Or at least that’s how it was presented and discussed, which immediately presented problems. (Not only have non-straight relationships always been part of life outside the big city, but they have never been monolithic. The way in which Exotic was treated as both exceptional and quintessential bought into both liberal elitism and the right-wing anti-cosmopolitanism.)
For the smart artist, an EP is a chance to experiment, to reach into unexplored parts of their skillset and emotional stuff and see what comes out. The shorter format provides just enough space to do this without fully committing, and if they find the right approach the artist can stumble upon something that gives their work a whole new dimension. I think of Alice In Chains’ Jar of Flies as a sterling example in this regard: a metal band allowing themselves to slow down, re-embrace lush acoustics, and in the process create something that highlighted the haunting introspection of the band’s songwriting. It was the first EP to debut at number one on the charts.
Peck’s Show Pony does something similar. In this case, he takes a handful of the elements that made his debut Pony one of the best records of 2019 and strips them down. There is an obvious irony in Peck being Canadian given that he is able to conjure such specifically American imagery; in fact it is easy to forget. The similarity in titles should in theory lead the listener to believe that it’s the same “pony” we’re hearing from on this EP, just a “showier” side of him. But, save for the Shania Twain collaboration, there’s very little flash here. In fact most of the songs go in the opposite direction, favoring relatively spare instrumentation and production that encourages us to sit with stillness, the loneliness of wide open spaces shaping the show pony’s world when they aren’t (with good reason) declaring themselves a legend next to Shania.
The bigger the world, the lonelier you can feel, and Peck’s loneliness is vast like the open road. Two of the songs – “There Ain’t No Glory In the West” and “Drive Me, Crazy” – put this front and center. The conquering pioneer is done in by, of all things, his own loneliness on these songs. There’s plenty of echoing reverb, soft acoustic guitar and mournful lap-steel in these songs. And of course there’s Peck’s heart-stopping baritone, irresistibly coaxing you to get lost in it. Which we do.
There is always a stumbling block in writing this type of material. These are well-worn thematic and musical tropes, and their universality is precisely what makes it easy to become cliché, more Top 40 radio filler, easily forgotten among the countless references to cold beer and pickup trucks. On Show Pony, the themes and scenes are rendered with a vivid honesty and originality. It’s here that the queerness reemerges.
There is a vulnerability on these songs that, even in the use of similar tropes, sits very uncomfortably with most of what passes for “mainstream” or “pop country” today. It’s a vulnerability that shouldn’t be considered a threat to male identity and masculinity, but, well, here we are. That’s precisely what makes Show Pony work so well. In emphasizing the fear, the heartache, the sadness and helplessness in relation to such well-known symbols of American country music, Peck is showing that queerness – or at the very least a conception of gender and power that isn’t so violently repressed – has always been part of the country music lexicon.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the EP’s final track, “Fancy.” This is a song that was first written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1969. It tells the story of a poor young woman whose terminally ill mother, in a desperate act to get her daughter out of poverty, uses her last bit of money to buy her a dress, some makeup and perfume. “Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy,” the mother says, “they’ll be nice to you.”
This is a song about sex work. Rather stunningly for the time it was recorded, there is not an ounce of shame in it. If anything there is defiant pride. Fancy clearly prefers a life of sex and luxury to grinding poverty, and who can blame her? She calls the moralizers and critics hypocrites. “I might have been born just plain, white trash,” she says, “but Fancy was my name.”
This is a feminist Southern Gothic story, one in which redemption is only gained through violating the rules and mores of a profoundly cruel and unfair world. Peck’s version leans into this. The instrumentation is sparer here than anywhere else on the album, allowing the song’s settings and characters to drive it. Peck’s dulcet tones frequently give way to a resentful growl, particularly as he recounts the “white trash” line. Fancy’s disdain for those who used to call her that, and her joy at ultimately having the last word, are clear.
The most meaningful change, however, comes in a single lyric. The words are for the most part entirely untouched. The only exception is at the very end of the first verse. Whereas Gentry’s Fancy marvels in the mirror at “a woman where a half-grown kid had stood,” Peck’s version changes “kid” to “boy.”
Needless to say, this lends a new meaning to the entire song. The gentlemen Fancy is to be nice to, the kings, congressmen, and occasional aristocrats Fancy charms are all seen in different lights. So is Fancy’s whole world, in particular their mother. But it is still a recognizable world, still cruel and unfair, and Fancy is still fully justified in rebuking those who judge. The entire story – in all its callousness and poetic justices – still fits.
As with so much of the rural or Southern Gothic, there is a queerness already in the story. This is not to say that Gentry intended it to be in her song (she may have but there’s no way to know). Neither is it to deny that Peck has changed the text (he has, but again, it is marvelous how he was able to do that with simply one word). The original story, simply by dint of personalities made and remade, sexualities shaped and reshaped, of transgressions against social boundaries and shames, invokes queerness. Or at the very least it makes for a story into which queerness can be easily coded.
Tennessee Williams knew how to do this well. So did Zora Neale Hurston, Willa Cather and Toni Morrison. So do Dorothy Allison and Alice Walker. And if we want to circle it back to music, we can hear this urge for reinvention and re-making across the country sound, well past Gentry and Peck. It’s certainly in the wide and diverse array of woefully overlooked queer country artists, from Lavender Country and Wilma Burgess on through to Mary Gauthier and beyond.
All of which poses a question: if these stories of reinvention always seem to be running through the cracks of the South and rural America, what does that say about the reality of those regions’ dominant identities? More to the point, what does it say about how they too can be changed?