Zephaniah Ohora with the 18 Wheelers,
This Highway
(Last Roundup, 2017)

I began my association with Rambles.NET in 2003. In the years that have passed since then, I've had the opportunity to observe the comings and goings of roots-based musical styles in the CDs that show up on my doorstep, offered up for review by independent labels, representatives and artists.

To my regret, one genre whose presence has faded is traditional country. Once upon a time a handful of small, energetic labels plied me with honkytonk, Western swing and rockabilly, or what you might call the hillbilly triad. Those labels have since fallen silent, and while no doubt a few comparable ones hold out, I'm not on any of their mailing lists, and I suspect they're only regional in their aspiration. Where there used to be country, there is now the hybrid would-be genre calling itself "Americana" (see my review of Michael Scott Cain's book The Americana Revolution in this space on 20 May 2017).

Thus, while its sound is familiar, This Highway delivers it in a fashion that feels novel and refreshing. The familiar part is the late Merle Haggard's unmistakable influence; the novel and refreshing is Zephaniah Ohora's swinging, melodic approach, so assured that one is surprised it emanates from a young man as opposed to a hard-bitten bar-band veteran. The singing dazzles, as does Ohora's old-school songwriting.

It says here that the opening number, "Way Down in My Soul," is not the mesmerizing, florid-toned love song it appears to be but the fruit of LSD ingestion. One doesn't ordinarily associate hallucinogens with hillbilly music, which this is; it is definitely not psychedelia. It does raise questions about who or what the "she" figuring so prominently in the lyrics may really be. And evidently this is where Ohora's urban sensibility kicks in. New Hampshire-born, he lives in New York City and is prominent in its country scene.

He traces his musical education half a century back, which happens to be Haggard's heyday. Some song titles -- all but one of the 11 are originals -- are downright Hag-esque: the title tune, "Songs My Mama Sang," "I Do Believe I've Had Enough," "I Can't Let Go (Even Though I Set You Free)," the last even darker than the title may lead you to presume. There's something admirably unapologetic in Ohora's approach, basically: Okay, I love how Merle did it. So what?

So what indeed? It would be objectionable only if the resulting music weren't so thrilling. And it's not just the singing and the songs. The 18 Wheelers, channeling Haggard's celebrated touring band, the Strangers, are a classy outfit, the pitch-perfect accompanists for these stirring tales of heartbreak, drinking, rambling, criminal misdeed and somber reflection on life's choices. These days it's easy to forget, but a joy to be reminded, just how good real country music can be.

music review by
Jerome Clark

24 June 2017

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