In the video for breakout country star Orville Peck’s “Hope To Die,” a denim-clad cowboy stands at the ready, hand poised inches from the holster on his hip and eyes blazing from beneath the brim of his 10-gallon hat. It would be a familiar image to anyone who’s ever seen a western film, if not for the fact that the cowboy’s (Peck’s) holster is empty, that he’s wearing a fringed mask more evocative of S&M play than badlands banditry, and that rather than being shown facing his adversary on a dusty street in some border town, we see Peck against a blank white background framed by the bare legs of the man he’s staring down.
For the openly gay singer, these twists on classic cowboy imagery are less a subversion of the country-western aesthetic than an expansion of it. Since the release of his critically acclaimed debut album, Pony, last March, Peck has been weaving high fashion, LGBTQ culture and dream pop sounds into the fabric of country music with resounding success. By inflecting the genre with contemporary sparkle and his own personality, he’s firmly taken the reins of the music world, touring internationally and appearing on the cover of British GQ Style. From behind his stage name (Orville Peck is a pseudonym) and trademark masks, he croons songs in which the lore and sounds of the Old West blend seamlessly with his personal story and musical style.
On Pony, an easy harmony between country music and elements of Peck’s broad range of indie influence are on full display. Slide guitar and banjo are dressed up in crystalline reverb that wouldn’t be out of place on a Grizzly Bear record. Guitar lines hover somewhere between a straight up western twang and a more washed out shoegaze fuzz. Peck also plays with uniting his personal identity and his love of tried and true country symbolism lyrically. In his theatrical Roy Orbison baritone, he sings about rodeos and drag queens, conjuring images of Marlboro Reds and men who “call [him] pretty” in the same breath.
The lyrics on Pony feel deeply personal, but they do so while staying true to the everyman vagueness often found in country music, shying away from revealing any specifics about the man behind the mask. Peck keeps most of his personal details a mystery, but he’s confirmed that he is Canadian and used to play in punk and indie bands. Beyond that, the less that’s known about his true identity the better. He’s said that writing under a stage name has allowed him to be more honest about his experiences. Without the weight of a factual backstory for the musician behind the mask, the character of Orville Peck—a Johnny Cash-like outlaw, riding alone through a modern frontier of isolation and passion—is free to grow its own mythology and follow its own rules.
In Peck’s westerns, a showdown like the one depicted in the “Hope to Die” video isn’t a standoff between two enemies out for blood; it’s an encounter between two lovers, with their relationship, not their lives, hanging in the balance. In the video, this personal story plays out in a western setting, but it’s a version of cowboy folklore that’s as unique to Peck’s interests and desires as the emotions he sings about. Though replete with ponies, chaps and even some hay, the video quickly becomes more of a fashion show than a showdown. Dressed in a succession of vibrant, bold outfits that evoke both the ranch and the runway, Peck strikes pose after pose, shaping his fingers into imaginary pistols or holding the bridles of horses under a melodramatic spotlight.
The video for “Hope to Die” is more interested in highlighting Peck’s love of performing the role of the cowboy, as well as his love of fashion and of performance in general, than it is in trying to cast him as a traditional gunslinger or desperado. He fully embraces the power he gets from donning his stylish Nudie suits and fringed masks, and lets the sense of identity in the act of dressing up as a cowboy allow him to be the focus.
Across his visual output, this boldly honest approach to his character takes center stage. In the video for “Turn To Hate,” riding a mechanical bull rather than a real one isn’t a choice of budget or safety, it’s the on-brand, in-character choice of Orville Peck. In the tour montage filmed for “Nothing Fades Like The Light,” Lone Star logos and ten-gallon hats coexist perfectly with shots of men twerking against a van and of band members Instagramming away under the glow of roadhouse neon. In Peck’s new westerns, it’s the brazen honesty that makes it all fit.
Instead trying to authentically embody the role of a cowboy, Peck’s aesthetic is centered about authentically embodying himself. He revels in the role of rhinestone cowboy, valuing the rhinestones and the pure act of it as much he values the way its time-honored stories of brave outlaws blazing their own trails resonate with his own narrative. He doesn’t fit his music, his style or his general image into a cookie-cutter country western mold; Peck filters the genre and all of its fixings through his true self.
“True country music is not about instrumentation, it’s not about the color of your skin, and it’s not about your sexual orientation,” he’s said. “It’s about the crossroads of drama, storytelling, and sincerity.”
Story by Ben Grenrock. Photos by Carlos Santolalla.