Zephaniah Ohora probably would have charted higher on Billboard’s top country albums list had he released This Highway a few decades ago, but it certainly wouldn’t have felt so unique and cathartic if he had.
This Highway imitates the sound of classic country almost perfectly, though many of its clever lyrics feel more modern and urban. The feelings of frustration with New York living play well on tracks like “I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough” and “High Class City Girl from the Country.” Other tracks like “Songs My Mama Sang” and “I Can’t Let Go” could have just as easily been put out during the 70s. With much of the generation who performed back then having passed away or at least no longer putting out new music in that style, Ohora is a welcome extension of the tradition.
“She’s Leaving in the Morning” winds up being the most effective of the 11 tracks. Much of the album sees Ohora devastated by love, sometimes angry and sometimes in denial. On this track, he’s gone through the other stages of grief to reach acceptance. He’s still sad and wishes thing could be different, but he’s at peace with at least his own efforts. It’s a mature yet painful place to be. Also noteworthy is his duet with Dori Freeman. They step into the roles of Frank and Nancy Sinatra in “Somethin’ Stupid.” Both Ohora and Freeman have timeless voices and they make for an excellent pairing.
Glide talked with Ohora about country life in the big city and keeping tradition alive
This Highway is as classic country as you can possibly find in 2017. What made you replicate that sound so exactly?
I’ve been into it for a long time and the records that I’ve been listening to sound just like that so I wanted to make something that I’d enjoy listening to even if it wasn’t my own record.
What does it take to recreate that sound?
Genuine love for the genre and the tradition and studying it a good amount. The other major component is having a pretty good group of well trained and experienced musicians. It sounds simple but it’s deceiving. It’s not the easiest thing to play.
Who are some of your biggest classic country influences? Let’s see if you name the one I want to guess because I think you channelled his spirit here even though he’s still alive.
People that I love, I suppose. Merle Haggard is a big one. I really got into Marty Robbins and Ray Price and Hank Snow and I like George Jones a lot too. Those are the main ones, but a lot of different guys from that era.
Any Gene Watson in there? I hope you realize “He Can Have Tomorrow (I’ll Take Yesterday)” sounds exactly like something he’d put out. It’s a little sad and a little sarcastic that way.
Oh, I love Gene Watson! “Farewell Party,” that’s an amazing song. I never really thought of that actually but I take it as a compliment.
In that category of dark murder ballad type song, you wrote “I Can’t Let Go (Even Though I Set You Free.)” It sounds like the way you set this girl free might not be the most pleasant.
Obviously everyone knows, or at least a lot of people know, a little bit of the history and how murder ballads were a musical tradition. I was listening to a lot of Porter Wagoner and a guy named Carl Smith and they have some songs like that. I don’t look at it in a literal sense, I think it’s more representative of the passion you might feel for someone you feel deeply for, just the concept of how it would take you. It’s something that takes over your life so much so that it could completely alter it. That was my take on it and I just wanted to do a tip of the hat to that tradition and write my own little piece on it.
It’s kind of a running joke I suppose living in New York. I’ve been living in Brooklyn for 10 years and I seem to have met many women who are an actress and a model and they also happen to sing. I just thought I would write about that because obviously in the New York dating scene you run into a lot of people like that who are trying to be somebody and they’re so focused on trying to make it that it’s really impossible to connect with them on any sort of meaningful level. I think that we’re all guilty of that to some degree I suppose. When you get to New York it’s an exciting place. I’m from New Hampshire originally, so it’s not that far away but it’s kind of the whole universe away from here in many aspects.
How are you liking your time in Brooklyn?
I love it. I love the community of people here. I don’t think I’d still be here if it wasn’t for the community. I book a lot of gigs at this place called Skinny Dennis in Brooklyn. It’s been open for almost four years now and I’ve been booking music for them since they’ve been open. It’s how I met everyone. When I formed this band “the 18 Wheelers” that’s how I met all these amazing musicians. I think I would’ve left by this point if that place hadn’t come into existence. I don’t think I actually would’ve made an album to be honest with you. I love Brooklyn, but it’s getting to be a more and more expensive place like all these other trendy metropolitan areas. I don’t know how much longer it’s going to be sustainable, but I’ll stay here as long as I possibly can.
You sing about being this disillusioned person on “I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough.” Despite loving New York, is that also true?
Absolutely. No matter where you live, whether it’s a small town or big city, eventually you get stuck in a rut. Maybe one day you feel like that and maybe one day you don’t, but I wrote about how I was feeling in that period of my life. Also, from working a job and feeling like I’m always doing the same thing and not really moving forward in my life. I think that everybody can relate to that. I guess that’s why a lot of people go on vacation a lot.
Go on tour! It’s half the travelling of a vacation, half work and all music.
That’s the plan. I’m already getting some good responses through the Internet from people all around the country and that’s pretty interesting.
Then you have what’s a pretty funny song when you think about it, especially because of the size of New York. You’re in this 8 million strong metropolis and you tell a girl to take her love out of town.
(Laughing) It went with the theme of highways and all that stuff. It’s when you know you had a big part in why something didn’t work out and you also share a lot of the same friends and neighborhood. They’re probably out with someone else and you’re not really any different in that way but at the same time you’re not really happy in the situation. You’re hoping maybe they’ll come back anyway. That was the idea behind that.
You also got to do a Sinatra cover with Dori Freeman, who I can say quite confidently is one the best folk vocalists of all time, even though she only has one album out.
I have to agree with you on that. We have some mutual friends and got to talking. I’m a huge fan of hers even though she’s my friend, which is kind of unusual, at least in my experience. She’s one of my favorite singers in quite a lot of time, at the very least right now. That’s for sure. Jim Campilongo, who produced the record, basically had just been talking about how I grew up listening to old music and watching old movies when I was a kid. So we were talking about Frank Sinatra in the studio and he has this brilliant idea that “Somethin’ Stupid” would be a great song to do as a country song. I was flabbergasted. How did I not think of that? It already is a country song, in a way. It’s not that far off. So I booked more studio time and I asked Dori to do it. We did it live, together, singing at the same time. I think it was the second take on the album.
Actually, she was the first time I was made aware of your existence was at a Sam Outlaw show. I had interviewed Dori when her album came out and I talked with her in the crowd before the performed background vocals for you.
Yeah, she came up and sang with me that night. It was awesome. That’s the only time I’ve ever done that song live. You’re one of the few people that’s seen it.
I feel pretty special right now. Hopefully you will get a chance to do that live another time.
I sure hope so. It’s possible me and Dori could do some stuff together in the future on the road. She’s such a phenomenal singer. I’ll at least make it happen in New York.
Check out more with Trevor Christian and his pulse on the Americana scene on Country Pocket on WUSB which airs at 6pm Mondays on WUSB 90.1 Stony Brook