The aptly named “party switch” featured in every room at the Dive Motel in Nashville has four options: sex, drugs, rock & roll and sleep. Orville Peck, in a pair of horse-print tighty-whities, is boogying to the sex station, which blasts 1970s R&B while a rotating disco ball shimmers in sparkly pink hues overhead. The lack of a television, plus the bright geometric wallpaper and deep shag carpeting, signals that this renovated roadside inn isn’t the kind of place you visit for a family-friendly good time. But on this sweaty Tennessee afternoon the only thing splayed across the bed sheets is Peck’s collection of handmade lace-up masks. Gold fringe, long red fringe, short cream fringe, mid-length pink fringe. Fringe galore, yee-haw, amen.
Peck fastens on one of his masks — which he hopes never to be seen in public without — pairing it with an embroidered Nudie-style suit. Someone suggests we crank up the party switch to drugs, which features trippy lights and sounds by hip-hop forefather Grandmaster Flash. The country artist is pleased, mostly with his outfit.
“I do like the Porter Wagoner look,” Peck says, referring to the 1960s twangy crooner who made sparkly, chain-stitched getups part of his signature look. Wagoner, however — at least as far as we know — never cracked a whip while listening to “White Lines.” The musician moves to another bedroom, this one featuring side-by-side bathtubs and more shag, to snap additional photos. He stands on a bed and gives a hearty crack to a long, vintage-leather lasso.
“I’m good with a whip,” the superhero-like figure announces, an innuendo that would no doubt cause fidgeting across town on Music Row, the epicenter of Nashville’s commercial country-music industry. While fluid sexuality has long been embraced in pop music, the naughtiest images to ship out of this town tend toward a tight pantsed Luke Bryan singing about “knockin’ boots.” For someone like Peck, who is openly gay, a career in mainstream country has almost always been out of reach. Just seven years ago, in 2013, country radio penalized Kacey Musgraves for alluding to kissing girls on “Follow Your Arrow”; the song never charted higher than 43 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart despite being named song of the year at the 2014 Country Music Association Awards. The genre, conventional wisdom would like you to believe, is conservative, and the only viable path for an aspiring artist who happens to embrace gayness is country-adjacent. But times are changing. Nashville is starting to demand a party switch.
“See,” Peck says, flicking the whip in an impressive wave motion with a controlled snap of the wrist, all cowboy confident, “I told y’all.”
Peck, who put out his debut LP, Pony, on Sub Pop in March, sings about relationships with men because that’s who he is, not because he has an agenda. The sexiness in his songs comes more from a sonic palette that sometimes sounds like Chris Isaak than from character-playing. Much has been murmured about Peck’s sexuality and his “subversive” role in country; almost as much has been made of his masked anonymity. All three aspects are captivating, for sure, but they represent a fraction of the whole: Peck speaks about being a gay man in country music not to spur a revolution but to find a role for folks like him in a genre that, historically, hasn’t been welcoming. If anything, he’s a traditionalist at heart. Dolly Parton and Wagoner are his North Stars in a cosmos that also includes Merle Haggard. And no, Orville Peck isn’t his real name, but no one makes a stink about Eilleen Regina Edwards, the woman we know as Shania Twain.
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