Zephaniah OHora Mines Merle Haggard on ‘Listening to the Music’
In terms of musicality, lyrical depth and pure swagger, there are few country music legends who compare to the late, great Merle Haggard.
With a 50-year career that included the expected ebbs and flows, there’s much art to explore, consider, and analyze. For the brave musicians who follow, there are distinctive sounds and styles to borrow. That’s not saying emulation is in any way easy.
Zephaniah OHora finds that out the hard way on his sophomore album, Listening to the Music, which is much more a clumsy homage to the late 1970s/early 1980s glory of Hag than it is any singular, individualistic artistic statement.
OHora, a Brooklyn resident and New Hampshire native who broke in the independent roots and country world back in 2017 with his debut This Highway, makes this classic honky-tonk style (and an explicit Haggard stylistic connection) much more pronounced on this follow-up effort, which was produced by Neal Casal shortly before his death last year.
When he succeeds, he’s often astounding. Like mid-period Haggard, OHora can make music that’s crisp, sturdy, and well-assembled, but not overdone. The rollicking “Black & Blue” effortlessly and buoyantly captures the toils of love with just enough but not too much polish.
“Good looking lady I don’t think that you really see / The choices you’re making and how you’re tormenting me,” OHora, ever an old soul, shares on the track.
And with a steady rhythm section and enduring chug, “Living Too Long” captures one view of life’s monotony. “My good time buddies have all left town / The bars we used to hit ain’t around,” OHora sings with a confident swing. “Monday Tuesday it’s all the same / Same old faces with different names.”
Aping Haggard’s Serving 190 Proof, Back to the Barrooms, or Big City is novel and even endearing for the first few spins. OHora even brings in Norm Hamlet, a steel guitar player who long belonged to Haggard’s band The Strangers, on Listening to the Music for good measure.
OHora and his band mess around with a long-overlooked element of Merle’s mid-period works: jazz. Songs like “We Planned to Have It All” and “Time Won’t Take Its Time” have artful instrumental flourishes that are sadly much too short.
But the cause of Merle worship does wear thin on repeat. Haggard sometimes struggled to hit the right note on politics. Fittingly but no less awkwardly, OHora ambles through the cringe-inducing “All American Singer” with a confusing jumble of lines.
“I’m gonna get down off the soapbox / and get back behind a guitar with the band,” OHora sings, “stop singing songs that draw hard lines / that set the stage for chaos and divide.”
And on the yawning “Emily,” OHora pleads for this darling to remain in his life. Soaked in sugar and strings, it’s a countrypolitan bit that threatens to sink the album’s back half.
Thankfully, Listening to the Music ends not with dripping sweetness, but with what sounds like a tip o’ the hat not to Haggard but to another country titan: Jimmie Rodgers. On “Time Won’t Take Its Time,” OHora yodels the record to a close.
There are worse things.