Zephaniah Ohora With the 18 Wheelers Premiere 'Take Your Love Out of Town' Video, Talk New Record 'This Highway'
If you pick up a copy of This Highway, the new album from New York-based Zephaniah Ohora with the 18 Wheelers, you might feel that you have stumbled upon a lost album from Merle Haggard and The Strangers circa 1973. Ohora takes that statement as the compliment that it was intended to be.
“I have a band -- and we play weekly, about three hours a week, all Merle Haggard songs; a pretty broad range from the '60s all the way up through the 1990s,” the singer admits to Billboard. “I grew up in the church, and played music since I was a kid, and I’ve gotten into all kinds of genres and music. I didn't grow up listening to Merle Haggard, but when I first heard it, it spoke to me. I’ve been collecting country records, and listening to it for about fifteen years, and I think Merle’s catalog really captured the country sound in a way that remains timeless."
Growing up in New Hampshire, the singer says that recording This Highway almost happened by accident. “I never intended to take it to this level,” he confesses. “I formed this group with Jim Campilongo, who is kind of a cult-like figure in the guitar-picking world... we got to talking, and we realized that we both had this obsession with truck-driving country records. People like Red Simpson and Dave Dudley were really huge, and the style was kind of a sub-genre. We formed the group from there, and at first it was just covers. Then, I started to work on these original songs.”
Campilongo suggested that Ohora make an album. “It was just a goal to capture the moment with the musicians we had at the time," Ohara says. I just wanted to make a record that I would enjoy listening to if it wasn't me. I think that people get a little hung-up on the throwback sound where they want to hear something modern and fresh, but I think country music is unique in the sense that you can still follow the format, and play it how it was initially meant to be played -- especially during the '60s, which was the golden era of it."
He adds that if more followed his lead, he wouldn't be offended: “Hopefully, some more people will do that. I think there are some that are doing that, but hopefully, people will get over trying to re-invent the wheel and appreciate the traditions -- we don’t have a lot of traditions in our culture these days. I think it’s a nice thing.”
One of the stronger moments from This Highway is the attitude-heavy “I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough,” which Ohara says was partially influenced by another artist frequently credited with keeping the old sounds alive.
“I had heard a Dale Watson song that I really liked, which sounded like a Merle Haggard song," he explains. "I just got inspired by it. At the same time, I decided to write about my life in New York -- I’ve been here for almost ten years, and I just wanted to get out of my surroundings and my grind here. It can be a challenging place to live, and a stressful place to be... I wanted to write about that, and I thought that everybody could relate to that no matter what your surroundings are -- if [you're] in the same pattern from day to day, and you want to get out."
In a city not known for its traditional country sounds, what kind of reception does his music get in the Big Apple -- particularly the neighborhood of Williamsburg (Brooklyn) where the band frequently plays? “New York is a strange place," Ohara offers. "There’s so much going on. It can be a difficult place to get people to come out -- especially if you’re not really well-known. It’s also a place where there is a lot of people from all over the place, so when I play here in certain places, I may have someone from Texas come up and say ‘This is great. I feel like I am back home.'"
Since the release of This Highway earlier this month, Ohora says that he has been flattered by the praise that he has received from critics: “I’ve been getting some nice messages. People really seem to be excited about it. They’ll say that it’s great to hear someone in this day and age singing about some things that they can relate to, but they also seem to love the sound. Classic things never seem to go out of style.”
This Highway does feature one cover -- a tip of the hat to Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s 1967 “Somethin’ Stupid.” Ohora grants that it sounds like a logical choice for the album, but insists it just fell into place. “We were doing some overdubs, and Jim and I were talking about some of our favorite Sinatra records. He brought up that one, and said ‘That would be a really good song to do as a country cover.' I was floored by that, and wondered why I hadn't come up with that. In a way, it’s sort of a country song in some ways, with a similar structure. I decided to go back in the studio, with some other musicians, brought my friend Dori Freeman in, who is one of the best modern songwriters, and has one of my favorite voices ever. She was excited to do it, and it was really fun.”
Ohora is planning a tour of clubs to support the album, and can’t wait to take the music to the people. He says he takes pride in introducing the classic sounds to young audiences, while fanning the flames of a vintage sound for those around when it was new.
“I loved Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, and Marty Robbins, but really became obsessed with the music of Ray Price,” he says. “I put this band together, and we would put together a show based on the whole Night Life album. It was quite a feat to do that, but I did the best I could. I also learned about country music from Gram Parsons and The Byrds and that California sound. That was definitely something I listened to a lot for a long time.”
In both a culture and a locale where his musical leanings could have shifted many ways, what is it about the sound of classic country music that lit his muse? “I think it comes down to the history -- that time period of the United States, and what was going on," he theorizes. "People were coming out of the Depression in that time period, and World War II. It’s a very interesting time period in history in our country, and there was a moral dilemma being discussed that is connected with church or religion, and also that sort of pondering some kind of higher power... It’s hard to find that in modern music. You find a lot of songs that are about partying and buying things, and a lot of earth-bound focused songs."
"I think that’s why I’m drawn to that music," he continues. "It speaks to me more as someone trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing here!”
Billboard is excited to bring you the video premiere of “Take Your Love Out Of Town,” of which Ohara explains, “This song paints the picture of living in the aftermath of a love gone bad. It's easy to decide who takes the couch, who gets the records, but what about all your old favorite places? It's amazing how a place as big as New York City can feel so small when you're trying to move on, and avoid all of the subtle reminders of someone that come with the places you go and the people you might see. Sometimes, you wish they'd just leave town."