Writer and filmmaker John Waters lives on the East Coast, but he’s a country boy at heart.
He admitted as much at a recent concert by one of his favorite country singers, Orville Peck.
Waters, 75, was the “special guest host” for Peck’s July 22 “Rodeo at Red Rocks” concert in Morrison, Colorado, a multi-artist event that included country bad boy Charley Crockett and the British singer and songwriter, Yola.
In a wide-ranging monologue that set the tone for the night, Waters recounted how a boy from Baltimore, who grew up to be a best-selling author and maker of cult films such as Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs, came to be such a fan of country music – and Orville Peck. That’s when he made a confession:
“I hate to say this because some of you might take this the wrong way,” he told the crowd, “but country music made me gay.”
Waters grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Elvis Presley was a sensation.
“When I first saw Elvis Presley gyrating,” he said, “and I heard him twitching and moaning and hiccupping through that song, ‘I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine,’ oh when I heard him go, ‘We’re gonna kiss and kiss and kiss again,’ I tell you, I knew something was up down there, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Those early stirrings “confused me,” he said. “I started thinking: Other cowboys, are they all sexy? I didn’t know. Was Gene Autry hot? Of course, I graduated. I went on to Warren Smith and Jerry Lee Lewis and of course Roddy Jackson later.”
Waters said he hung pictures of his favorites on his bedroom wall – and got parental pushback.
“My Mom used to come in my room — I would have all these pictures up — and say, ‘Who are these creatures?”
That’s when he realized he was on to something.
“Isn’t it true that the first music we love that our parents hate, that becomes the soundtrack of our life — and we should listen to it ever since?” he mused. “I’m still listening to it. I mean, Outlaw Country’s on my radio. And every time I hear ‘Snake Farm,’ oh God, that makes me horny, that song. And when I hear, ‘If I Could Make a Livin’ Drinkin,’ I feel ambitious. And every time I hear Hawkshaw Hawkins sing that sad song, ‘Lonesome 7-7203,’ I cry my eyes out, I really do.”
Peck is the gay crooner from Canada who wears a fringed mask to hide his identity — so people will pay more attention to his music, he says. He collaborates with fashion brands such as Dior and Michael Kors. His voice has been compared to Roy Orbison’s and Roddy Jackson’s, and he’s gained a loyal following of LGBTQ ‘cowfolx,’ among others. He raised eyebrows with his gender-bending cover of “Fancy,” the Bobbie Gentry/Reba McEntire ballad about a young woman whose mother tells the singer to “just be nice to the gentlemen” and “they’ll be nice to you.”
Peck delivered a sultry country road version of “Born This Way” with Lady Gaga, for her recent Born This Way Reimagined – The Tenth Anniversary album. He sang “Cowboy Take Me Away” with Miley Cyrus on her Stand By You Pride special on Peacock. He teamed up with drag performer Trixie Mattel for a campy cover of “Jackson,” the Johnny Cash-June Carter duet. Ryan Murphy featured him singing “Dead of Night” on a trailer for American Horror Story Season 10.
Peck and Waters have had a mutual admiration society for the past two years after Waters mentioned Peck in one of his spoken-word shows and Peck heard about it and called him out of the blue. Last summer, Peck asked Waters to lend his voice to the music video that Peck made with Shania Twain, “Legends Never Die.”
The Rodeo at Red Rocks was one of the first in-person appearances before a large crowd for either Waters or Peck since the spread of COVID-19 forced shows to be canceled around the country.
For Peck, it was the second stop on a seven-city Summertime Tour that runs through early August. He’s also performing at music festivals, including Lollapalooza, Under the Big Sky, and Hinterland.
Waters took a break from his summer beach routine in Provincetown to join Peck in Colorado. Dressed in a dark suit with a thick white stripe, he looked rested, tan, and happy to be on stage at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which he described as “Hollywood Bowl meets Jurassic Park.” He said he read that dinosaurs once roamed the area – “and I don’t mean The Grateful Dead, who played here.” He promised to take the near-capacity crowd on a “Hillbilly Hayride to Heaven” and complimented everyone for getting vaccinated.
“Look at you all,” he marveled. “You’ve been freshly released from self-imposed home detention. You’re all needled-up and ready to go, right? It’s a perfect audience. Part hipster, part gay, and part real country fan. Perfect. The Holy Trinity of audiences.”
Waters encouraged Orville’s Peckheads to cross boundaries.
“Tonight we’re not going to stay in our categories,” he said. “We’re going to mix back and forth. I’m against separatism.”
Crossing boundaries ought to be nothing new for this crowd, he quipped.
“Country western fans, you’ve always been down-low gay-friendly. Aren’t you the first to recognize a boy named Sue? Yeah, we’re going to cross over tonight, definitely, definitely.”
Waters wrote about his love for country music in his latest book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.
“If you can’t appreciate country music,” he said, “you have no soul.”
He emphasized his bona fides again in Colorado, saying he’s put country music in his soundtracks from the beginning.
“I had ‘Red Hot’. That was always in my movies. And Little Cindy’s ‘Happy Birthday Jesus.’ And ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ by John Prine.”
Waters named two country western icons who made a lasting impression on him.
“I actually met Roy Rogers and Dale Evans when they were alive, sort of,” he said. “They were about 100, and this was at Roddy McDowall’s house in Hollywood. They were there in a dinner party, totally dressed head to toe in their cowboy outfits. I thought the horse was in the bedroom. And I thought: This is a true professional, someone that becomes who they portray and lives a life like that. I thought it was really, really amazing.”
Waters said he’s considered writing his own country songs, maybe about “the excitement of doing poppers and bronco riding,” or sitting around the campfire with “Johnny Paycheck beyond the grave, Wanda Jackson and Hank Green, roasting weenies.”
He’d like to be a singer too.
“I was nominated for two Grammys,” he boasted. “Well, that was for spoken word, not singing. Joan Rivers died and beat me, that bitch. And Michelle Obama beat me the second time.”
In the “Legends Never Die” video, Waters was an announcer on the radio, introducing a song by Peck. Now he’s imagining what could be next.
“I think if I became a country western singer I’d be a faux geezer named, I don’t know, Spank Williams,” he said. “I can’t really sing, I know that, so I’m going to ask the engineers to mix my voice with Alvin and the Chipmunks. You know they did a country album in 1981, and I’d sing that song called ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy.’ ”
This brings him to Orville Peck.
“Maybe Orville would hear me singing and call for me to sing a duet with him like Trixie did or Shania Twain. I know the song we should do: ‘You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly,’ ” by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
“Orville and I are a lot alike in some ways,” he noted. “We both play Coachella. We both have a history of musical theater, of course Hairspray for me. I always thought that Orville would be perfect to take the lead in Cry-Baby the Musical if we ever revive it on Broadway.”
Waters was full of praise for the masked singer.
“Yippie-ki-yay can he sing, in that voice The New Yorker says the Yee-Haw Generation deserves, and I agree,” he raved. “He goes walkin’ after midnight for all of us. Roy Orbison isn’t the only lonely here tonight. There’s no lovin’ feelin’ lost when he does the Righteous Brothers.”
Waters likes Peck’s look, too.
“He’s Liberace and Versace, peeking out from under that mask with a little stubble like a Tom of Finland character without all the agony. He’s a rural rebel, and that’s hard to say, but it’s even harder to be — showing a little of Chris Isaak’s swagger and a lot of Tammy Wynette’s honky-tonk.”
Peck didn’t disappoint, singing songs from his 2019 debut album, Pony, and his follow-up EP, Show Pony, including, “Summertime;” “Winds Change” “No Glory in the West;” “Big Sky;” “Nothing Fades Like the Light;” “Drive Me, Crazy;” “Legends Never Die” with Bria Salmena from his band; “Dead of Night;” and “Queen of the Rodeo.” (A local noise curfew reportedly prevented him from getting to the planned finale, “Born This Way.”)
He played the guitar and did a sort of jig with Crockett as they sang Waylon Jennings’ “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” He and Yola, born Yolanda Quartey, came together for “Islands in the Stream,” with Peck playing Kenny Rogers to her Dolly Parton. Or was it the other way around?
As he gains attention with his concerts and fashion shoots and high-wattage music-world liaisons, Peck has drawn some criticism for not being “country” enough, or not respectful enough of country traditions.
Waters doesn’t see it that way.
“Orville doesn’t make fun of country,” he told the crowd at Red Rocks. “He just knows how much fun country can be.”