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Jun 9, 2017
By Kevin Broughton
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.
Ray 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 while.
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 uplifting book.
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 Coast.
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 you dosed?
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 the time?
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 deal?
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 another one.
I truly think this album speaks for itself. But tell me one thing everyone should know about Zephania OHora.
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?