Country music reflects our ever-changing culture with its ever-changing soundscape. The music passing away a cowboy’s loneliness grew, connecting hard-working folks with ideas of freedom in good times and bad. A transformation occurred with Ernest Stoneman’s 1927 Nashville recording, part of The Bristol Sessions. Radio audiences fell for the guitar-driven, down-home style, yet few major changes to the genre have ever stuck longterm, as styles in country ebb and flow. With all that in mind, Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music may be leading a new renaissance. It’s one of the most potentially-influential records in recent years.
OHora’s successful transplant from the home of Buck Owens in Bakersfield, California, to the wide-open ideas of Brooklyn, New York is certainly part of the story. The musician’s deeply religious upbringing could suggest to those of faith that there are no mistakes in the universe that leads to this album.
The final work of producer Neal Casal before his sudden passing is a unique blend of old school country musicality blended with jazz and blues stylistic elements. The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn provided the perfect setting to record the album; these friends and associates were able to create a record in live takes, adding an organic, spontaneous quality to the recordings.
The traditional twang of “Heaven’s On the Way” is a nod to the old-school sensibilities of country music, contrasting with the song’s lyrical content. The quick-hit “Black & Blue” blasts through a break-up tune with slide and electric guitar. This uptempo stunner flashes moments of brilliant vulnerability. Themes traditionally left to angst-filled tunes lurk in the songwriter’s lyrics, but something’s different here. OHora shifts down gears to “It’s Not So Easy Today,” connecting to an exposed inner place. This subtle gem shines. Like Glen Cambell’s “Witchita Lineman” in its soaring proclamations, this is one of the record’s standout cuts. Violins and piano mix perfectly with Ohora’s vocals. Casal’s intuitive restraint shines here, lest we forget the producer’s touch.
Surrounded by masters in their craft, OHora’s “Listening to the Music” is a testimonial to music as God’s gift to us all. The title track is beautifully simple, with the singer’s vocal tone somehow both embracing, encouraging, and sonically soothing. This song’s creative force cheers each of us, calling us to embrace music’s powerful energy. The sequencing is key to this album’s success; each song provides a step on the path to enlightenment through the overall narrative, from old school country to a new identity reflected through Ohora’s metaphor-rich lyricism.
The emotional “I’ve No More Tears to Cry” is a set-up for the album’s lead single “All American Singer” halfway through the album. The song’s significance is only matched with its brilliance, putting forth the idea that our country was built on people fighting for change. Dignified and authentic, this rolling anthem blends old-school country composition with protest lyricism and a flair for positivity. OHora switches to sarcasm with the uptempo groove of “Living Too Long.” The song soars, with shining piano and guitar solos interjected throughout the closing refrain.
“Riding That Train” opens the window on life in New York City from an outsider’s perspective. This celebratory, joyful, jazzy roots Americana puts us all in the songwriter’s shoes. This song should get carved into the Great American Songbook. “Emily” and “You Make it Easy to Love Again” may seem like a country artist’s obligatory love songs, yet these are lyrically independent of the tired, formulaic themes that exhaust listeners. With an aura of Lyle Lovett, this track feels classic. The album closes with “Time Won’t Take It’s Time,” a laid-back swing with a touch of Ray Wylie Hubbard. This album is sonically lush: each note perfectly mixed and given space to breathe, each instrument–including Ohora’s vocal moments–given time to shine.
Ohora hoped the album would shed light on the unique talents of his friend and producer Neal Casal. In the end, this album shows the universe had a plan for his artistry. Music opens a channel, connecting shared experiences to provide meaning in challenging times. Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music helps redefine country music as a genre, its reimagining an expansion of country music’s sonic palate. The artist’s blend of performances creates a new flavor of country music, throwing it all the way back to blending gospel and jazz, then swirling it with the sheer spiritual joy only music brings.–Lisa Whealy