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.