Saturday, Sep. 8, 10 p.m. | Lincoln Theatre
Forget Texas or Tennesseedeep in the heart of Brooklyn is a growing traditional country scene with a slew of artists excited to pay homage to the past while weaving their own tales through its sound. That’s where singer-songwriter Zephaniah Ohora is based, and where he helps cultivate the scene for the Williamsburg honky-tonk bar Skinny Dennis. Beyond playing three-hour Merle Haggard tributes or integrating songs from Ray Price and Gram Parsons into his sets, Ohora oversees the venue’s booking and has used the opportunity to help country music flourish far from its roots.
The genre’s resurgence, heard in music from Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Ashley Monroe, and others, could be seen as a course correctiona chance to put down the red Solo cups and get back to something more emotionally resonant. But rather than view it as a form of nostalgia writ large, Ohora and his cohort deftly bring the tender touches of traditional country to contemporary life. His particular ear for the bend and twang that best express heartbreak and hard living have set him apart from the revival’s fray.
Ohora released his debut album, This Highway, last year, and quickly turned heads. There, he details his grievances about big city living (“I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough”) and delivers tips-of-the-hat to the past (“He Can Have Tomorrow (I’ll Take Yesterday)”). His vocals showcase a romantic candor while his tight-knit backing band’s stylistic sensibilities run the gamut from Western swing to rock-a-billy to the Bakersfield sound.
Ohora may not have gone looking for traditional country music when he was younger, but it eventually found him. He grew up in the church, where he came across numerous genres, but when he heard Merle Haggard for the first time, he was practically dumbstruck. Cut to fifteen years later, and he’s naturally absorbed those influences into his music along with several others. “I loved Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, and Marty Robbins, but really became obsessed with the music of Ray Price,” he told Billboard last year.
As to whether or not the rise of traditional country rings authentic to purists held captive by the past, Ohora believes there’s plenty of room for new voices.
“I think that people get a little hung-up on the throwback sound where they want to hear something modern and fresh, but I think country music is unique in the sense that you can still follow the format, and play it how it was initially meant to be playedespecially during the sixties, which was the golden era of it.”
Ohora follows the format of his predecessors, but he doesn’t content himself with retreading their path. Instead, he finds imaginative ways to infuse country with a bit of his big city cred.