It’s a dark little bar, named after Guy Clark’s bass player, that’s tucked into a lost corner of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The band’s crammed up on the stage, nearly spilling into the audience, and young couples are two-stepping around the edges. With a nightly lineup of the best young honky-tonk bands in the US coming through, Skinny Dennis has become the center of New York’s burgeoning roots country scene, and Zephaniah OHora–his hair slicked back, all decked out in black–is leading this new community. OHora’s encyclopedic knowledge and burning love for old country music glows triumphantly throughout his new album This Highway (set for release May 26, 2017), which frames his original songs right in the crossroads of a golden era in the music: the meeting of the Bakersfield and Nashville Sounds of the 1960s. This blend of New-York-City-meets-Merle-Haggard songwriting means that OHora’s songs feel deeply personal even while presented through the smooth sound of a bygone era.
Perhaps it’s a credit to his ability to imagine himself in any place or time. OHora is originally from New Hampshire, where he grew up playing music for worship meetings at his church. These evangelical meetings centered around improvisational music, intense prayer, and even speaking in tongues. “It was kind of like a cult, although I didn’t realize it at the time”, he says with a laugh. Leaving the church, OHora walked a winding path through his early 20s. “I experimented with psychedelics at the time, and after you have that first life changing trip, everything seems to take on a more surrealistic nature.” Listening to the LSD-inspired “Way Down in my Soul”, you can almost envision OHora floating through a 70’s country love affair.
It was through a hair salon job that OHora first connected with the New York City country music community that has now become his home. He had just taken a job booking live music for newly-opened Skinny Dennis when he met his friend and salon co-worker John Shannon, who plays guitar on This Highway. He also met one of the album’s producers and lead guitarist, Jim Campilongo (The Little Willies feat. Norah Jones, Honeyfingers), who shared OHora’s archaic love of trucker country songs. “Jim had the best record collection of this music I’d ever seen,” OHora says. Wanting to create new music that drew from the classic eras of country and touched on the gritty love of the road that country truckers sang to, OHora formed up The 18 Wheelers to accompany him on the new album. These top New York country musicians–co-producer Luca Benedetti (Honeyfingers), Jon Graboff (Shooter Jennings, The Cardinals), Alex Hargreaves, Roy Williams–were drawn from the Skinny Dennis scene that Zephaniah built as the booker. Under his direction, the bar has become a gathering place for New York’s top country musicians. “This record is a really beautiful culmination of the amazing people who are involved in that scene” he says of This Highway, “it’s not that I’m special, I’m just a product of this amazing wealth of talent and all these hardworking musicians that exist in one place here in NYC. I think the community really made this album”.
It is clear, however, that OHora is something special. At a time when “throwback” artists are a dime a dozen, he has captured a beautiful, specific, and lesser known moment in the history of country music, and brought it to life through his own voice. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, country music decided it needed to try appealing to an urban demographic, and maybe it’s some kind of beautiful irony that New York’s Zephaniah OHora is now creating some of the best country music today.