Last month, New England-raised singer/songwriter Zephaniah Ohora introduced himself here, explaining how he came to discover country music in a bar in New York, and found it fit him like a glove.
In this new extract from the same interview he explains why, even though he’s left his childhood faith behind, he wants to believe his music can show there’s more to valuing an American life than race, religion and the colour of your political ties.
Zephaniah Ohora doesn’t sound like a 21st century country singer. And he’s fine with that.
His songs mix a bit of swing and a good dose of smooth mid ‘60s countrypolitan with, if you look closely even a truck driving song or too. Not only does he not sing about babes and beer but the voice is gentle and easy and has the tone of his guiding stars like Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard and Tommy Duncan of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.
“I get a little bit of flak for being the Merle Haggard guy but I was drawn to it because in some way maybe our voices sit in a similar spot,” Ohora says. “I wish I could sing as well as he did, he is one of the greatest of all time, but I strive towards that.”
And, for the final touch, Ohora grew up in America’s northeast, in a deeply religious household with little time for secular song, and only came to country music after moving to New York in his 20s.
He left the church - “I was asking too many questions for them, you know” – but not all the philosophy you suspect. Take for example the song All American Singer, on his recently released second album, Listening To The Music, where he argues if you’re not going to judge people on their skin colour or length of hair, don’t judge them on their political and religious persuasion, where they grew up or what music they grew up with. A bit of a personal perspective there Zeph?
“Yeah, I think so,” he says on the phone from his Brooklyn home. “The heart of the song is judging someone’s humanity or their worth or their moral worthiness based on [those things]. That’s just not the way I view life in general, especially coming from an extremely religious upbringing, then taking a bunch of psychedelics and drugs and living a ‘worldly’ lifestyle, which I was raised not to do.”
Does he really have faith, if that word can be used in this context, that most people can be brought to where agreement doesn’t mean division?
“I don’t really know but I think in my personal life, the way that I like to conduct myself,” he says. “If I’m gonna make those statements, broad statements about whole lists of people, in this income bracket or this class or this racial group, there might be somebody in there who is going to write me off and they’re not going to listen to anything I have to say in my music.
“American Singer, I spent a really long time writing that song and it never came to where I really wanted it to get to 100%, but I really had to think about it because, unlike a tweet or a social media post that you can delete, it’s permanent, it’s a recording, it’s a statement.”
It’s a quirk of history’s repetition that these divisions and assumptions within the country and culture, these judgments based on hair, hometown or voting intentions, are reminiscent of the 1960s, when people making country music like Ohora were thick on the ground and in the pews, and long hairs from East and West Coasts automatically were dangerous atheist, minglers of the races, and fornicators.
The irony, or hypocrisy, is that Merle Haggard – who wasn’t averse to a jazz cigarette, happy pills, maybe even a tumble in the hay and would later be one of the original outlaws of modern country - could create a right wing standard bearer like Okie From Muskogee with lines such as “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD” and “We don’t make a party out of lovin’/We like holdin’ hands and pitching woo”.
“That’s true, but look at Willie Nelson’s famous quote where he said something like he realised the reason he really liked Austin, Texas was that when he got there they had the bikers and the cowboys in the crowd along with the hippies,” says Ohora, who in the past decade has turned himself from country music novice to student of the form.
“People know that I’m a huge Grateful Dead fan and that’s what I think is so awesome about them: they were so anti-authoritarian that they never told anybody what to do. They had so many different types of people of those concerts: you had Hells Angels, you had hippies, you had Cambridge University types. That to me is way better because then it’s about the music and the collective, common ground that everybody has expressed in music. And that’s sacred and really special.”
With that, having travelled from Lefty Frizzell to the Grateful Dead, from religious texts to acid tabs, and finding the distance is not that much at all, Zephaniah Ohora bids farewell.
Listening To The Music is out now, on Last Roundup Records.
A version of this story originally appeared in Rhythms magazine