Zephaniah OHora: This Highway

Brilliant evocation of Merle Haggard’s pathos

“Zephaniah OHora” isn’t the sort of name you normally expect to see on a country record. But this New England-to-Brooklyn transplant has obviously steeped in the classics, from the album cover’s allusion to Merle Haggard’s debut, to gently sung, pedal steel-lined songs that evoke the wistful, beaten-down-yet-still-faithful mood of the Hag’s classic Capitol albums. Eleven originals and a cover of Frank & Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid” flow easily as OHora wistfully remembers lost soulmates, longs for lovers who are now out of reach, and is beaten down by the city. When he sings the New York City lyric “I was holding down a job, just south of Houston, for a while, serving time, making someone else a dime,” he mates the grit of big city life to the personal struggles that have always been at the root of country music.

The production puts the twang up-front alongside OHora, with electric guitar riffs that echo Roy Nichols, acoustic leads that have the gut-stringed tone of Grady Martin, and steel and fiddle that add potent emotion. But what really distinguishes the album is OHora’s ability to conjure honest, humble and tearful pathos. He leaves the door open for a love who’s moved on in “Take Your Love Out of Town” and patiently waits for a “High Class City Girl from the Country” with a gentle shuffle that might have graced records by Glen Campbell or Bobby Goldsboro in the 1960s. OHora’s protagonists find themselves looking out the door as someone leaves, hung up between accepting fate and begging a second chance. The emotions eventually turn dire as tears turn to threats with the dark lyrics and Ray Price beat of “I Can’t Let Go (Even Though I Set You Free).”

The album’s title track gives voice to the philosophical thoughts that rattle around a long-haul driver’s head, the highway continuously unspooling ahead as memories recede in the rearview mirror. And the closing “For a Moment of Two” is likewise contemplative, as OHora pairs his misery with a bottle that untangles the lies he’s told himself. Even the album’s cover of “Somethin’ Stupid,” sung as a duet with Dori Freeman, fits the album’s theme with its hesitant seduction. OHara is supported by Jim Campilongo and from Brooklyn’s Skinny Dennis scene, Luca Benedetti, Jon Graboff, Alex Hargreaves and Roy Williams, and their shared affinity for a time when country music surfaced in the mainstream without losing its hillbred soul has paid tremendous dividends here. A real sleeper. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

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