Zephaniah OHora “Listening To The Music” ( Last Roundup Records, 2020)

Authentic but new? Old-fashioned whilst fresh? Easy listening and boosting? This album is somehow so antique that it sounds crisp, music circling decades around itself so it comes back to kick its own butt. People love labels, so it is described as new country traditional, or neo-country. It’s the opposite of alt-country, but wholeheartedly Americana. Traditional purists will adore this, modernists may find it hokey. No apparent references to trucks, so bro-country radio should reject.

Of course the only real question should be is it any good, and it is great, opening track ‘Heaven’s On Its Way’ kicking off fast with highest class pedal steel leading into the optimistic lyrics, a beautiful track.  Zephaniah OHora’s voice is knowingly that of Merle Haggard. A warm, honeyed rich tone with similar phrasing that is surely gained from much study and reverence. OHora is a Brooklynite, but this album has a line straight to Bakersfield, taking in all of middle America. There is also a touch of early Sturgill (before he went manga), but this is mainly a Merle for these times.

The album was gorgeously produced by Neal Casal, one of his last works, and he brought Jon Graboff with him, his exemplary pedal heavy on every track. So that is essentially half of Ryan Adam’s best ever backing band, it’s Merle And The Cardinals. OHora is involved in the Neal Casal Foundation, an all-star tribute ahead, and he will be forever thankful for his work here. The only jar is his toe into politics with ‘All-American Singer’ where he avows opinionating by singing “And they take pride in takin’ sides, Well I’m proud to be an All American Singer”. All-American as a descriptor though is very loaded, with a strong subtext – check out the Urban Dictionary listing for its meaning to others. If Will Hoge for example had written this song, it would be ironic, but then Hoge is very woke. OHora surely means well with this polemic, but this naivety will go down a storm from Milwaukee to Missouri, surely this album’s target market. Surely also a direct Merle nod, to his “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” patriotism.

This record started as a Kickstarter, but feels so solid and professional. There’s a train song (every such album used to have one?), harmonies and melodies galore, loads of great guitar picking sparing off the pedal steel. Strings, piano etc wisely placed, even sax in ‘We Planned To Have It All’-Merle liked a touch of that as well. By the end, perhaps this album could feel syrupy, little too much honky-tonk, not enough variety? But as there is firmly no intent to progressive construct, that has merit. The album finishes old-timey, with ‘Time Won’t Take It’s Time’, its very last phrase being a yodel, somehow a very fitting end.

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