Orville Peck and Willie Nelson Collide on Queer Cowboy Anthem

Orville Peck and Willie Nelson Collide on Queer Cowboy Anthem

By Tobias HessApr 09, 2024

“Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other” is not just a statement of indisputable fact — it’s also the title of queer country pioneer Orville Peck’s latest collaboration with country outlaw legend Willie Nelson. The song was originally written by Ned Sublette in 1981 after he observed the prevalence of urban cowboys in the Manhattan gay bars he lived near. Though it was already a quiet classic, the song took on new life over 20 years later when Nelson decided to release his cover of the song in 2006, in part inspired by the release of Brokeback Mountain.

On Friday, the anthem took on yet another new life when Nelson and Peck came together to release a cover of the song, along with a video shot on Nelson’s own Luck Ranch in Texas. It was a timely project for Nelson, who was the one to suggest the collaboration, citing the rise of anti-trans and anti-LGBT legislation around the country as an impetus to re-release it. “[Nelson] was like, ‘Maybe we should get gay married in the music video and my wife could be the pastor,’” Peck tells PAPER. “‘We'll just give a finger to everyone.’”

The video, directed by Ben Prince, floats through a dreamy western landscape and intercuts between Peck and Nelson jamming languidly outside and queer couples dancing lovingly in a saloon. It’s charming and intimate, providing a moment to recognize the scope of Peck’s career and impact. I mean, who else could bring together the twin talents of Willie Nelson and the queer adult performer Sean Ford, who’s featured in the video?

The release also anoints Peck’s forthcoming album, Stampedes, a project of duets and close collaborations that will stretch Peck’s sound in new directions. And along with the new era comes a new mask, with this one revealing even more of Peck’s long-concealed face. “I think my whole trajectory as an artist has been about consistently revealing more of myself, quite literally,” Peck says. “I was ready for something new to make me feel a little bit nervous and on my toes.”

We spoke with the country star on the day of his release to explore the process behind his collaboration with Willie, the song’s political relevance today and his take on Beyoncé’s latest country offering, Cowboy Carter.

I know you just got off a cruise. How is being back on land?

I'm very happy to be back on land. The cruise was very fun, but by the third day I wanted to get off the boat. Cabin fever is a real thing.

Well, welcome back to solid ground. It must be exciting to come back with the new song and video. I'm curious about your relationship to this song. Do you remember where you first heard it?

It would have been Willie’s version, around 2006. I remember being blown away that Willie Nelson had recorded a song like that. It became this instant cult classic. It wasn't played on the radio at all. It had a little bit of a life with the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack, but it's always just been one of my favorite Willie Nelson songs. Ned Sublette’s original version is amazing, but he wrote that in the ‘80s, so having Willie doing that was pretty amazing.

How did you decide to cover it? Did you reach out to Willie first?

I used to cover it in my live show from time to time because I was such a fan of the song and it's the landmark gay country song. And then when I met Willie for the first time, he said to me, “Oh, I heard you cover that old Ned song.” He was like, “We should do that as a duet, because it's more important now than ever. I feel like it should have another life.” So it was his idea to do it. Of course, I was like, “Yeah, duh.” And that same day, he was like, “We gotta do a music video!” Originally he was like, “Maybe we should get gay married in the music video and my wife could be the pastor. We'll film at Luck Ranch and just give a finger to everyone.” Willie is so cool because he's always been an outlaw. He has always been this way. He’s always been against the grain. I mean, it's in the word, “outlaw,” outside of the law, outside of the norm. So it is very affirming, having gotten to know Willie over the years now, to see that he is even more that person to his core than I could have ever imagined.

When I was reading past interviews with Willie, he seemed very nonchalant about the radical politics of the song. You told me he wanted to revisit the song at this political moment. Tell me a little bit more about that conversation.

I remember the conversation we had was not long after the overturning of Roe V. Wade. He was talking about how fucked up the Supreme Court was at the moment, and how the next step would be to overturn gay marriage and rights for LGBTQIA+ people. So it was very much in line with what we were talking about. Willie is an amazing person, and he's very kind, thoughtful, inclusive and bold. He’s just not going sit back and pretend that like stuff that what’s fucked up isn't fucked up. That's what I love about him and his wife, Annie. She's amazing. She always wears really funny t-shirts. She was wearing a t-shirt on set that said, “Why be racist, homophobic, and sexist, when you could just shut the fuck up?”

Oh, yeah. That's the classic. I know that shirt!

Yeah, she's amazing. They're just cool. Their whole family is great. They're very kind and very real people. And Willie is absolutely just a legend in every way possible.

On a personal collaborative level, what was it like being in the studio with him, or being on set with him?

It was insane, especially making the music video. He's 91 and he doesn't do a ton of public stuff. Even when he tours, they keep a very closed bubble. I was telling myself, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I didn't want to get my hopes up and then get disappointed if he understandably wouldn't be able to make the shoot or something. But he was there, and in the best of spirits. We had a great time. We filmed on Luck Ranch, which is their ranch in hill country in Texas. It was the best day ever.

That's awesome. I love the video. And it felt like something that only you could do. When else will we have [adult film star] Sean Ford and Willie Nelson in the same video?

Yeah, that's pretty funny. I'm the gap between those two elements.

You released your forthcoming album’s art, which also shows your new mask. It’s a lot more revealing than previous iterations of your mask. What was the thought process for this new mask?

I think my whole trajectory as an artist has been about consistently revealing more of myself, quite literally. The mask has gone through a few iterations, and every few years I evolve it a little bit more. I really like things to evolve. And I feel like I'm moving towards my most authentic self. That's the aim. I was ready for something new to make me feel a little bit nervous and on my toes, to put myself out there a little bit more. That's what I try to do with each new album and each new iteration of the mask. I try to challenge myself to be a little more vulnerable each time.

Can we eventually expect it to just keep getting higher and higher until it's like only covering your forehead?

I joke that it will end up just like an eye patch. But yes, this is what it'll be for now. It might evolve again.

I know that the details of the forthcoming project are still to be announced, but we know that it's duets. What made you want to do duets in particular?

I've always loved duets and features and collab projects. Willie asked me to do the cover of "Cowboys." That actually spurred the thought process. I was like, Oh, maybe I should see about doing an album that's all duets and collaborations. I put the feelers out there. I wanted it to be people that I knew personally and admired. I shot really high and some of them hit, which is pretty amazing. I also really wanted each song to feel like a genuine collaboration between me and the other artists, so it didn't just feel like it was like an Orville Peck song with a featured verse. So we did a lot of writing together with each of these artists, and wrote specifically for it the songs to sound like me and the other artists combined. Some are totally outside of the realm of anything I've ever done before, because, depending on who the person is, we kind of tried to meet in the middle. It's sort of a concept album in the way that every single song is its own complete, different thing.

I have to ask one Cowboy Carter question. You've been so fundamental in bringing forth cowboy iconography into pop culture in recent years and tying it with wider ideas about queerness and identity. I'm curious what it feels like to see some of these ideas you've been playing with enter the zeitgeist in this new way?

I've worked with Beyoncé before. She asked me to be a part of the Ivy Park rodeo campaign a couple of years ago now, and it was so cool because I learned that I had been on the mood board and inspired a lot of it. She even wore my mask in one of the shots. I think people don't realize that Beyoncé very much has her ear to the ground, and she likes a lot of subversive culture. She's someone who knew about me, which is insane to think. But once you kind of actually work with her and get to know how she works it, it makes sense because she is a fan of all these things, and that's why I think it makes total sense that she would make that album a dedication to the history of Black Country musicians and that she would include these Black country musicians like Linda Martell. It's very smart of her, and I mean that in the way that she is a smart artist, and she is someone who actually likes art. I think that that comes through in the album. It's beautiful to see that stuff resonating, because she's the queen, right?

Photography: Ben Prince