I used to think of country music as something I connected to because it came from “my people”. My dad and I would blame our Scotch-Irish ancestry for the way we gravitate towards murder ballads, tragic and well-told stories that unfold on a backdrop of twangy guitar. “Irish people like being sad,” I quipped once, which became a sort of shorthand for the intuitive appreciation we shared for all songs wistful and folk-tinged.
There’s a grain of truth to this cultural association with country music, which often does carry elements of Scottish, Irish, or English folk songs. There’s a grain of truth, too, to the way my family identifies with being Scotch-Irish, though this term holds no real meaning for most actual Scottish or Irish people. (The meaning it holds for me is fuzzy at best; I always have to Google who exactly it refers to, because I forget the direction of emigration and the reason for it, alternately wondering whether “our people” were pushed out of their country by religious discrimination or whether they chose to leave because they had the capital and freedom to do so).
I clung to this idea of country music as heritage, something I could pinpoint in my body when I heard a particular instrument or line of harmony. But of course, country music is a genre that is all about faking a connection to an imagined heritage.
The music itself draws from European folk songs, yes, but also from musical traditions practiced by enslaved people in the early colonies (The banjo, after all, is an African instrument). And while Black songwriters and performers are behind a number of classic country songs, they are often left out of the genre’s history.
There are layers of pretending at work in this erasure. Despite country music’s multiracial roots, record companies in the 1920s intentionally separated “hillbilly music” (constructed as White) from “race records” (constructed as Black) as a marketing strategy. Genre operated as a tool of segregation: the same music, packaged differently, then used to sell an image of an idealized rural white past.*
“Folk festivals were thinly-veiled attempts to recast the music as white mountain music, as part of a project to create a white ethnicity,” explains Rhiannon Giddens, who’s deeply researched and emotive country songs center Black histories in and of the genre.**
Mainstream country music maintains its manufactured image of whiteness today, often gatekeeping artists who challenge the industry’s self-conception (See: the controversy that followed Lil Nas X topping country, pop, and rap charts simultaneously with “Old Town Road.” See also: the Grammys’ refusal to consider Beyonce’s “Daddy Lessons,” a track dripping with the singer’s Texan roots, in the country category).
Outside the construction of genre, country music often performs sleight of hand by looking backwards to a past that didn’t exist as a way of conjuring forward a reality in which whiteness is the norm, land belongs to white American settlers, and distinctions of class and region collapse under the weight of performative mannerisms.
This is the landscape onto which Orville Peck walked in 2019, as a white former punk musician from South Africa, currently based in Canada. Even when he is singing about Johannesburg (“City of Gold”) or the Kalahari Desert (“Kalahari Down”), Peck takes on what I can only imagine is a carefully constructed Southern accent in his music, which allows him to blend right in with mainstream American country. The twang in his voice is at times eerily reminiscent of Elvis. It’s a confusing experience, mostly because I really like it.
Peck sings longingly of “the bayou,” California’s Hexie Mountains, and going “home to Mississippi.” Whatever his connection to these places, they are signifiers, tropes. His affect is uncomfortable to listen to at times because his context makes it so clear that he’s playing a part. But at the same time, I wonder if that isn’t his greatest strength, too.
If a white, gay man from Johannesburg can so effectively perform Americanness, doesn’t that trouble country music’s core myth of authenticity? Doesn’t that force us to accept that every country musician, whatever their race or nationality, is putting on a show?
Of course, Peck’s whiteness allows him to slip into the genre (and be celebrated for it) more easily than Lil Nas X or Beyonce, and certainly than less mainstream artists like Rhiannon Giddens. Which is why Peck’s success is troubling even as it is intriguing—does his performance invite us to deconstruct country music’s whitewashed ideas of Americana, or does it take advantage of his ability to emulate them?
I’m not sure where I land with Peck, but amidst my ambivalence, I put in my earbuds and press play on “All I Can Say,” the final track on his 2022 album, Bronco. It’s a slow, sad duet with his collaborator Bria Salmena, the kind of song that makes you ache, deliciously. Their voices intertwine in fleeting moments of euphony, laced with mournful steel guitar slides that resonate in the space beneath my sternum. That wordless recognition no longer feels like heritage to me. Instead, it strikes me as something far more universal: the desire to inhabit moments of bittersweet beauty, however temporary.
*Chow, Andrew R.. “Black Artists Helped Build Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind,” Time, 10 Sept. 10, 2019, https://time.com/5673476/ken-burns-country-music-black-artists/.
**Abdelmahmoud, Elamin. “Rewriting Country Music’s Racist History,” Rolling Stone, 5 June 2020. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/country-music-racist-history-1010052/.
About the Author
Mer Wade is a lover of horror movies and K-pop, an occasional poet/essayist, and a graduate student at NYU Gallatin exploring pop culture as a bridge between collective imagination and the material world. You can usually find Mer singing, jogging, or watching trash TV.