Zephanaiah OHora has made a remarkable album, one that
recalls a golden era in country music. This
Highway – released today – oozes authenticity with its silky smooth vocal
phrasing and warm instrumentation, and captures a time when the Bakersfield
sound intersected with the “country-politan” vibe of late-60s Nashville. But
OHora poured himself into a decade-long study of the classics before putting
this record together.
Price, Hank Snow and Gram Parsons were just a few of the icons who informed
his immersion. A hair stylist by
day and band-booker by night, OHora eased into being a recording artist by
first playing with a group that did classic trucking songs – his backing band
is The 18 Wheelers – and a Haggard cover band as well. It was Merle’s records
that “taught me how to sing.”
And a quick study he was. His vocals are the genuine
article, and take you seamlessly back to a simpler time. There’s not a weak cut
on the album: ten originals – any of which could’ve been recorded by the aforementioned icons of traditional country – and a
lovely cover of the duet “Somethin’ Stupid” from Frank and Nancy Sinatra. Fans
of the golden era of classic country will put this one in heavy rotation for a
You’re apparently at
ground zero of a roots-country scene in Brooklyn, New York. It’s not a place
associated with country music, nor is your native New Hampshire. What kind of
music did you listen to growing up, and how old a fellow are you?
I grew up listening to a lot of old stuff because of my dad.
He and my older brother listened to a lot of sixties jazz, and of course the
Allman Brothers. At the same time, I also grew up in a very religious household
and wasn’t allowed to listen to “modern music” per se. I’m 34.
You have a
distinctive name. Were you named for the Old Testament prophet?
That is correct.
Did you know he’s the
only prophet of royal lineage? Great grandson of King Hezekiah.
I actually did not know that. When I was a the kid when I
had nightmares, my mom would say, “Go read the Bible. Read Zephaniah.” Not an
Yeah, well Zephaniah
was bringing the heat. Didn’t like the pagans, and he meant business.
This Highway evokes a blend of country styles and eras. There’s a
strong Bakersfield element, and some of that late 60s/early 70s
“country-politan” Nashville feel. Your band is called the 18 Wheelers, &
you started out doing the old trucking songs for fun. Walk me through the
process of how this all got synthesized into an album.
I got introduced to this guy Roy Williams, who was playing
in this band called Honey Fingers, that did a lot of old stuff like Ernest
Tubbs, the The Texas
Troubadours…the band is named after the song. And I was booking bands at
this place in Brooklyn called Skinny Dennis, which has gotten to be pretty
successful now.Bands from around
the country that play the old Texas sound play there when they’re on the East
I had been a DJ and had been collecting records for years,
and wanted to put together a band and have something like old Midnight Jamboree
show that Ernest Tubb did, except kind of in reverse. I would be a DJ and the
band would be a guest. So that was going on, and I mentioned that I could sing
a little bit. And I sang a few George Jones songs, then guested with them, and
it became a regular thing.
I was writing some, and over time we’d drop a few of those
into a set, and before long we weren’t doing truck driving covers anymore.
Your phrasing brings
a lot of the classic artists to mind: George Jones, Merle, a hint of Glen
Campbell. Heck, I could imagine Gram Parsons singing the title cut had he stuck
around a little longer.
Who are some of your stronger
vocal influences? I mean, I think I’ve named a couple of them…
Yeah. I got really big into Marty Robbins. I didn’t know as
much about Merle at that point. But Marty had such a range: country to pop-jazz
vocals. The album Marty After Midnight is still one of
my favorite records; it’s just ridiculous.And yeah, Merle…I’ve had this Merle Haggard cover band
that’s made me a much better singer.
And I was really into George Jones, too. And of course, the
Flying Burrito Brothers. But Merle really put it all together in the right way.
Any truth to the
rumor that “Way Down in My Soul” is a love note to blotter acid?
Ha ha. Yeah, maybe a little bit. I did a lot of psychedelic
drugs in my twenties. And I always like the whole “Lucy in the Sky with
Diamonds” thing, like there was a female energy to it. It’s sort of a goddess
who guides you through the whole experience; not necessarily a love song, but a
deep spiritual thing.
When’s the last time
Um. It’s been…well, I don’t know. Several years. Been a
while. I guess things get complicated as you get older. But I’m a huge Dead
Head and there’s a new documentary coming out about them. Makes me wish I could
just drop some acid & walk around the park.
Pedal steel is a
pretty trippy instrument, when you think about it, huh?
Was this album
crowd-funded at all? How did that go?
I crowd funded a little of it; probably a third of the cost.
It cost a good bit, because I don’t think it’s possible to make an
authentic-sounding sounding country record without a really good band.
I’ve been to see
“vintage” bands like the Derailers before, and the whole show is a scene:
people with rockabilly pompadour hair do’s, dudes with gas-station shirts with
their names stitched on the front. I see your picture on the album cover, with your jet black, swept back hair; are you playing
a part? Is this to blend in to a scene, and do you walk around like that all
Well, I don’t necessarily wear the suit every day, but it
was when I first moved to New York about 10 years ago that I started getting
into it. That was when I heard the Byrds’ Sweetheart
of the Rodeo…
Really? And you just kept drilling, digging down into it?
Yeah, and then I got some Hank Snow albums, some Jimmy
Rogers stuff. But it was Neil Young where I first heard steel (guitar), and the
Dylan Hard Rain album. I was obsessed
with that album when I was 20 or 21. But I was hanging out with a girl and we
had been out all night and around 5 in the morning she put on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and I was like,
“What the hell is this?” It literally
changed my life
What are your plans
and goals after the release of this album? Do you have any sort of distribution
Yeah, I’ve got a distribution deal with an imprint of Sony
records. It’ll be physical in Canada and the U.S., digital in Europe. But I
don’t have like a fancy booking agent to push me to the next level, so it will
be up to me to schedule dates and stuff like that. Hopefully people will like
it and that will open some doors along the way, and I can afford to make
I truly think this
album speaks for itself. But tell me one thing everyone should know about
Basically, that I love this music, that I’ve studied it, and
I don’t go for this bullshit idea that you have to be from a certain region of
the country to be a part of it. This is American music and we all have at least
a little bit of it inside of us.
Has there been some
skepticism based on geography?
Well, yeah, and it’s bullshit. If you decide to be in a rock
and roll band, are people gonna ask you where you’re from? Where is rock and
roll from? Should we base the answer on where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is
right now? I guess you can trace it to a couple of different regions; are
people gonna say you have to be from that certain region to be authentic?
This Highway by Zephaniah OHora and the 18 Wheelers is available everywhere fine music is distributed, including Amazon and iTunes.
Lost Classics: Gram Parsons & The Fallen Angels - Live 1973
by Kelcy Salisbury
Retro is cool these days. Punks are wearing "Cash" tee shirts, as a shout out to the man who's frequently considered the ultimate symbol of rock-n-roll cool. Hipsters are wearing them for irony. The comic books of my childhood are blockbuster movies. They even re-made Dukes of Hazzard (shudder).
In the rush to embrace "retro-cool" the true pioneers, the ones who influenced the folks who get the credit, very rarely are recognized. I don't see anybody (punks, hipsters or otherwise) wearing "Rodgers" or "Cooke" tee shirts. I'm pretty sure if I started a business making these shirts, I'd be even broker than I am in record time. Personally, I've always embraced retro, always been interested in digging deeper and finding the roots of the music I loved. When I heard Mama Tried on vinyl as a kid, it led me to Buck Owens. When I heard Waylon Jennings sing that Bob Wills was still the king, I dug into Wills, Ernest Tubb, and so on. I'm ashamed to say I didn't discover one of the most interesting, influential and tragic figures in American music until about 1998 or so. Dwight Yoakam had released Under The Covers, an album of songs that had influenced him, and I heard an incredible duet titled Sin City. I had to know who originally recorded it, which of course led me straight to The Flying Burrito Brothers and their seminal album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. The album might have been around 30 years old at the time but the music jumped out of the speakers and grabbed ahold of me. I had to find out more about the band and the man behind the songs, Gram Parsons, who up to that point I knew of only as the writer of the Rolling Stones hit Dead Flowers and a tragically (if not surprising) deceased friend of Keith Richards.
What I found was fascinating. Here was a true country music "outlaw", the father of a movement that gave America The Eagles, a breathtakingly talented songwriter, a man whose (albeit brief) commercial success of the early 1970s helped pave the way for the outlaw movement that was soon to follow, and a tragically flawed human being who left behind one of the all time great stories of a young rock-n-roller's death. A man who did all this, didn't even live to 30, and was largely responsible for Emmylou Harris' career.
Of course even a casual Parsons fan is familiar with his work with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and his two solo albums, GP & Grievous Angel. Eventually I discovered a recording of an in-studio concert, recorded as part of a 1974 radio tour on Hempstead, Long Island, NY.
The recording is a slice of Americana of the time, as banter between Parsons, Emmylou Harris and the disc jockey is all captured on the recording, right down to Parsons' tongue in cheek takes at live reads of a bread commercial, a brief discussion of the band's new tour bus, a stop in Blytheville,AR is mentioned, and Parsons personality and sense of humor shine through as he seems quite lucid and healthy in spite of his prodigous drug and alcohol abuse at the time. Looking back it's a bittersweet thing to hear a man who would soon be dead, his ashes scattered in the California desert (look up the story, it's well worth the read), sounding so alive, and happy to be so.
The songs are superb. Emmylou Harris never sounded better in her illustrious career than when she was backing Parsons as a member of the Fallen Angels. Parsons himself sounds like the living embodiment of a fallen angel as the songs run the gamut from the regretful "We'll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning", the straight ahead gospel of "Country Baptizing", an extremely strong cover of Merle Haggard's "California Cotton Fields", Tompball Glaser's "Streets Of Baltimore", and on a version of "Love Hurts" that puts all others to shame. These songs are primarily covers, but the versions of "Six Days On The Road" & "Cry One More Time" stand up favorably with the originals. Parsons puts his own stamp on the album by playing "Big Mouth Blues" (a song Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has long covered in concert), "The New Soft Shoe" and my personal favorite, the slightly subversive, definitely wierd, "Drug Store Truck Driving Man".
In summary this is not an album to cherry pick songs from, or to skip songs while listening to. It's meant to be heard as it is, because it was never really supposed to be an album anyway. It's just a group of musicians who loved true country music playing it and having a good time at it, all while having no idea what they were doing that day on Long Island would still be heard and appreciated nearly 40 years later. This might not be the best introduction to Gram Parsons music, although as brief as his catalog is almost any album is as good a place to start as another, but it's a solid addition to the collection of any fan of country, rock-n-roll, or just radio the way it ought to be. Who knows, maybe soon Hot Topic will start carrying "Parsons" tee shirts (oh how I hope not!)
Until next time, enjoy some timeless music and throw on a Gram Parsons record.