Orville Peck’s journey to country music fame was pretty standard really.
Born in South Africa, he was a professionally trained ballet dancer, moved to Canada as a teen and worked in theater and crisscrossed the continent as a drummer in a punk three-piece, before donning his now-famous fringed mask and singing some of the most haunting, Gothic-tinged country and western (with a heavy, heavy emphasis on “western”) ballads ever put on wax.
Tale as old as time.
OK. Well. Maybe it’s not as hoary a cliche as the coal miner’s daughter or playing behind chicken wire while two-steppers shuffle across peanut shells.
It is an unusual, meandering, Mad-Libs-in-a-fever-dream trail.
But the path from veldt to demographic-crossing country music cult star status started the same as so many other boot-scooters before him.
It all started with Dolly Parton.
“A lot of people who are from other parts of the U.S. even, Dolly was their first exposure to country,” he says. “She was seemingly everywhere and she was such a larger-than-life character.”
Peck loves the era of country where there were huge personalities — Dolly and Johnny Cash and the Highwaymen.
“People from that era of country, they adopted, not a persona necessarily, but this hyper-personality,” he says. “Dolly’s this girl from the Smoky Mountains who grew up barefoot and eating apples by the river. She’s running into hard luck but she always has a smile on her face. And that’s who Dolly is but it’s also this character she presents. Country used to make these characters. It was them being sincere and writing incredibly sincere, beautiful, honest songs and then sort of amplifying this part of themselves.”
Consider that framing when you consider Orville Peck, the man in the mask who sings grippingly dark and expansive songs that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Lomax family recording.
“The biggest misconception is that I’m a character and that I put on this act, but everything I sing about is super-personal,” he says.
There is a man behind the mask and he has a government name and all that information is widely available, pieced together by sleuths who climbed the topographic map of his lilt and followed the portolan chart of his tattoos.
Paradoxically, the mystery is both the point — the plaintive songs are even more affecting coming from a hidden face — and completely beside the point, much in the way that it’s immaterial that Captain Fantastic Elton John is really Reg Dwight.
Country music fans famously value authenticity, but leaning into aw-shucks and pick-up trucks can quickly become caricature, so that’s a tricky thing.
Balancing genuineness and character and showmanship isn’t an easy task; it’s an achievement the greats wangled. Parton and Cash and Peck’s pal Tanya Tucker.
Sure, Peck’s background is unconventional for country music but it’s all part of his evolution as an artist.
Ballet, as we’ve learned from every TV show and film about the art, emphasizes perfection and can be mentally annihilating to the dancers as they try to achieve a standard that is impossible. Growing up in such an exhausting art form and then transitioning to the decidedly un-ballet ethos of punk and then country meant Peck had to rewire his Renaissance man brain.
“I’ve had to actively unlearn it. For a long time, I would play shows and go on tour and I would be so focused on criticizing myself both in the moment and after the show, I would black out and not remember whole stretches of the tour,” he says. “I was so not present having grown up in this profession where perfect isn’t good enough. …
I have to work really hard, I make an effort to be present during shows. The first time I put it into practice, it was playing for Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden. Old me would have been critical from the minute we
started the set to the end … but I made such an effort to be present. It’s a rich memory in my mind, both those shows. It was nice to get to learn to do that.”
But the hard work that’s fundamental to ballet — and, for that matter, theater and punk rock — has helped create this sui generis country crooner.
“He’s so great as a performer and singer. He and his band are so good. He’s had many lives before he became Orville Peck,” his agent, WME’s Doug Singer, says. “In terms of performance background, he’s put in those 10,000 hours, but Orville Peck is a new project. This guy is a born entertainer.”
Singer rightly notes there’s another old country music trope at play, as well.
“That of being an outsider. Not being born in this country, but singing country music songs. Being a gay man. That trope makes sense when you put in the context of the individual,” he says. “It’s not the most obvious path, but it’s the most personal and honest art he’s made in his lifetime.”
On paper, no, the gay South African ballet dancer and punk drummer doesn’t read as country, but it’s the damn songs that matter, right?
“He’s walking on stage and people think, ‘Who is this guy in the mask?’” Singer says. “The music is undeniable. The voice is undeniable and his band is amazing. You can be skeptical but he’s gonna win you over.”
One of the first Peck shows Singer saw was in Orange County, California, not exactly a progressive hotbed.
“I went to the show and looked down snd there’s a man with a 10-gallon hat with his arm around his lady and he was belting out all the lyrics to ‘Queen of the Rodeo.’ This guy is down there belting out these lyrics — some of the gayest lyrics Orville has; I mean, it’s a song about a drag queen — it felt like such an amazing sight to see,” Singer says.
Peck is tailor-made for those sort of “first-time-I-saw-him” stories because he’s so visually arresting and vocally distinctive.
His manager, Fullstop Management’s Brandon Creed, caught his first show at a Brooklyn club.
“It was amazing and he was doing something really special and it’s so unique and his voice is incredible and he writes and produces and plays it all. It’s really impressive and I came away with … a lot of respect and admiration for him as an artist,” he says, remembering that despite the location, there was “a prominent country cowboy vibe” in that crowd, some of which, he concedes, was probably hipster irony, but nevertheless is an indicator of the breadth of Peck’s appeal.
“I love an artist who creates their own material. That’s the best kind of artist to work with. They are in control of their destiny to a degree. I think the Renaissance man aspect of him — the ballet, the theater, the punk, he’s so knowledgeable, in music and theater and culture space and he uses it all and pours it all into his work. He’s a real showman… and he definitely pulls a diverse eclectic crowd,” Creed says. “That’s what excites me working with him. There’s a level that feels niche but it’s my favorite kind of thing in that it’s artists who break through that touch different generations and genders and ethnicities on a large scale. You can’t put them in a box.”
Peck is that special species of artist who feels like a secret all the best people know, wherever and whoever they are.
“It comes down to the music. He is such an incredible storyteller and those songs and his voice, you hear that music and you see the person who is singing you those songs and it’s just such a compelling visual and a compelling sound and it does go together and it just makes him that singular artist,” Mary Madden, Columbia Records’ vice-president of touring and events, says. “I feel like his shows and his performances and the reason he can be at Coachella and then Stagecoach and the MoMA is that he fits in all these places. That is the work, he is super-serving these fans wherever they are, whether it is big or small, it is special and it’s considered and I think that’s why he’s such a compelling artist so as a fan you know you’re getting to follow this journey and you sort of expect the unexpected from him.”
Like so many performers, Peck feeds off his audience. He needs to perform. It’s surely a combination of nature and nurture, of composition and rearing, and in lots of ways, the road raised him.
“This is actually my 18th year of touring and I’m not very old,” the 35-year-old says. “So I remember when I was a punk drummer I would tour in a minivan, the drums couldn’t fit properly all in the back so I used to sit with my drums on my lap in the minivan and we would drive for like 13 hours from city to city sometimes, playing that night to a handful of people in a dive bar and sometimes just the promoter and the bartender … No one could have told me I wasn’t living the best life.”
So what happens, then, when the tour stops cold for a road warrior who’s been on the road for more than half of his (very interesting) life? What happened in March 2020?
“It was the worst thing and best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I think we had toured something like 200 days out of . I was completely unhappy, depressed, overworked, the meanest I’ve ever been to myself, the meanest I have ever allowed other people to treat me. I was just in the absolute worst, worst place in life … I don’t really know what the outcome would have been if I’d kept going that way.”
Peck says he was in an “unhealthy relationship” and now, off the road, was “forced to live every day” with that relationship, so he made a change and he made a record — Bronco, a chillingly honest, ferociously candid disc.
And on the other side? The preternaturally self-critical former dancer is being kinder to himself.
“It made me change a lot of things in my life and make a lot of big changes in my life. It literally saved my life, to be honest. I’m obviously not in the relationship I’m talking about anymore and I work a lot healthier now. I live a lot healthier. I try to go on tour for, you know, maybe not a reasonable amount of time for the average person but definitely not like a ballerina,” he says.
His current loop in support of Bronco begins June 20 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, a return of sorts to the location of those Harryween shows Peck regards so well. The tour makes some East Coast and Canadian stops but includes plays in Middle America, as well, complementing his spring run that featured plenty of southern dates. The go-anywhere-play-for-everyone ethos made clear by his performances at both Coachella and Stagecoach will be bolstered by festival and package plays as varied as Outside Lands, the Newport Folk Festival and a spot on Midland’s cruise.
It’s a plan that pays dividends. This is, after all, an artist who can score a near sell-out at the Ryman — grossing $82,211 on 2,243 tickets in May 2022, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports — and then post back-to-back sellouts in Melbourne, Australia, as he did when he grossed $160,723 on 3,950 tickets in July 2022 at that city’s Forum. And in between? Portland, Cheyenne, Minneapolis.
He’s been everywhere, as Johnny once sang in a tune Peck loves and echoes in his own patter song “Any Turn,” a tribute to touring life — a breed of song common to sophomore records — that Peck says “is just one big inside joke” with his band.
He meets people where they are, including in a metaphysical sense, and that makes for a convivial cross-section.
“I’ve never seen that mix of crowds and fans and scenes,” Doug Singer says. “There are genuine country music fans in hats and buckles and you have drag queens in their best western wear and too-cool-for-school hipsters standing in the back. … You just don’t see many drag queens at country shows.”
Peck loves drag, by the way. He loves the showmanship and the bravery, that exaggeration of self he admired in his favorite old-school country singers.
But because of his genre and the places he plays, “there’s people in Blue Lives Matter shirts and Trump hats and they are looking at me like I stepped off the spaceship from Mars.”
He admits to being “a little scared sometimes,” as he makes no secret of being a gay man — there’s no edifice covering it up lyrically, that’s for sure — but his band and crew — “all heterosexuals and my best friends” — give him the courage to do things like cover Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” even at “this very red state country festival.”
“A lot of times country fans are given less credit than they are due. … whether they know it or not, they are more open than maybe even they think. Everybody is dancing along and grabbing me for photos and I don’t think it’s because I’m so wonderful. I think if you give people the opportunity to learn and experience something new…you can turn a lot of people’s minds around,” he says.
On the other side, he’s also proud he provides a place for gay country fans to embrace every part of that phrase.
“This last tour we went through the Southern states,” Peck says. “People at shows were crying and were emotional. [They] can look around the room and say ‘I can be myself here and like what I like. I can just enjoy country music.’”
Singer calls it “a party everyone is invited to.”
“Having an artist being more of a direct champion to the LGBTQ community — Dolly has been that, but she’s married to a man— that was such a welcome breath of fresh air,” he says.
There’s nobody quite like Orville Peck — the gay South African ballet dancer turned punk drummer turned country singer who duets with Willie Nelson and Shania Twain and judges drag queens alongside RuPaul. He’s “one of one,” as Singer says. He’s niche with a cult following that’s broad and wide, engendering deep devotion and critical acclaim. But Orville as a project is still relatively new — his debut album hit streets less than four years ago — and his team isn’t skipping steps. He’ll play to umpteen thousands at the big festivals, but his tour is theaters and clubs and sheds. But not forever.
“I think [the ceiling] is whatever he wants,” manager Brandon Creed says. “I think he’s a headline act and an arena act when we’ve all done our job.”