Skinny Dennis Sanchez stood 6’ll and on a good day hardly tipped the scale at 135 1bs. He had Marfan Syndrome– a genetic disorder of the body’s connective tissue that manifested in elongated extremities and wore out organs. Sanchez was a fixture on the Los Angeles country music scene of the early 1970s. Guy Clark immortalized him in his song, “LA Freeway.” Skinny Dennis died on stage while holding his famous upright bass. He was 28, and legends have been born of much, much less.
In 2013, Sal Fristensky and Bill Mack decided to open a honky tonk in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn New York. The goal was that cheap drinks and good music would keep the bar full, and as of this writing, Skinny Dennis on Metropolitan Avenue is thriving. It’s an atmosphere cultivated around a deep appreciation for country music, and it’s more than just an echo of the dive bar your granddaddy might’ve known in another age. It’s an attitude you can strap on when you come through the door and hang up on your way out– or not. On any given night you can see and hear Zephaniah Ohora.
Zephaniah Ohora came to New York and found country music. Strange but true. He became enamored of the pedal steel. He discovered the truck driving anthems of Dave Dudley and Red Simpson. Merle Haggard became his spirit guide. Zephaniah met Jim Campilongo– a long-time honky tonker and telecaster troubadour. From the twang and tales of trucks, trains, heartache, whiskey, women, and woe came the 18 Wheelers– a 21st Century hillbilly outfit matching Bakersfield jangle with the slickest of countrypolitan style.
Zephaniah Ohora & The 18 Wheelers released the full-length album This Highway in June of 2017. The songs are thoughtful and streamlined, the instrumentation deliberate and smooth. It’s elegant and rich, but it’s also funny– who would’ve considered such an unapologetic country music record devoid of irony to come out of New York City? With the exception of one song, Zephaniah wrote or co-wrote every track on the album. The anomaly is Carson Parks’ “Somethin’ Stupid,” a song that went to #1 for Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy in 1967.
If your idea of country music is the “outlaw” stereotype or the auto-tuned branding and cliches clogging up the mainstream– This Highway ain’t gonna do it for you. Truly, it’s amazing the number of songs on Top 40 country music radio that claim the attributes of what it means to be “country” while failing to live up to the simplest standard associated with the form– a good song. Zephania Ohora and the 18 Wheelers wrote and recorded 10 good country songs. Legends have been born from much, much less.
AI: What kind of music was playing in the kitchen when you was growin’ up?
ZO: I grew up on a lot of… Sort of religious Christian music. That was kind of the household I grew up in. So a lot of gospel music you know? And more Christian church-based music and then I suppose like a lot of 1940s era… Like Sinatra and music from that era… Sort of the World War II generation. And I grew up watching a lot of old movies. We didn’t have like “tv,” we didn’t have cable. We’d always get stuff from the libraries. So a lot of that type music was around– like more music from films from the ’40s, and even the ’30s, and musicals and things like that. That’s primarily the main stuff I grew up around.
Well, what was the impetus? What was the first thing that grabbed a hold of you, and you thought, “I might kinda like to do this?”
As far as playing music? Ah, man… Well, maybe a guitar player named Grant Green. He’s a jazz guitar player. My brother sent me some tapes from California. My older brother used to send me a lot of different jazz tapes and stuff that he was getting into. So that got me really excited about guitar, and of course, Jimi Hendrix, obviously. I got my first electric guitar around the time that I was startin’ to listen to a lot of Grant Green, the Allman Brothers, and even like Otis Redding… Like that kind of stuff from that era– ’60s. I suppose that’s the first– and obviously, I was into the Beatles. Everyone was into the Beatles when they were a kid, and then I finally understood it when I got into my late teens, early twenties. I really got obsessively into the Beatles, but… So I guess before that, it was really just stuff like Grant Green and Hendrix and the Allman Brothers I listened to in my dad’s car.
When did you get hooked on country music?
You know? I’ve been trying to figure that out! I don’t know really where… I mean– I didn’t grow up around it really. That’s for sure. I suppose… Bob Dylan Hard Rain live album which came out in– seems like 1978 if I’m not mistaken. Someone that I was dating, an ex-girlfriend of mine, was really into that record, and the first time I ever heard it, I was like, “Wow, this is Bob?” My friend had tried to get me into Bob with Blonde on Blonde, and I was kind of like, “Eh.” I was listening to a lot of the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed stuff, and actually T. Rex and things like that. So, Dylan– I was kinda like, “Eh,” and then my girlfriend at the time played the Bob Dylan Hard Rain live album. I just fell in love with that record, and that really got me into Dylan from that point on. And that was the first time, I think, that I really heard pedal steel on a recording. There’s actually some pedal steel on that live show– and I thought it was guitar! But come to find out it was pedal steel.
Which is a unique instrument and a unique sound for sure.
Oh, for sure! Yeah, and then Neil Young Harvest. That’s kind of another one where I started to hear some pedal steel on recordings, and I was like, “Man, that guitar is amazing! What is it that?” Once again, it was pedal steel. That’s like… I feel kind of my entry point into the country & western thing. Plus, I was so into ’60s psychedelic music at the time as well. Naturally, all those bands, including the Dead and all those guys kind of… Like as the ’60s came to a close, or just towards the end of the ’60s, they got into American roots, dressing up like cowboys…
Yeah! Let’s talk about that a second. Out there in that Haight- Ashbury… Very, very– like you say– “psychedelic cowboys.” Sir Douglas Quintet, Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage– I mean they were all kinda pickin’ up this– this what you might call honky tonk sound, but puttin’ that love twist on it.
Right, totally. It’s interesting that was happening at the same time too. I mean, you kind of think Merle Haggard happening in a different time period– but it was happening at the same time as that whole hippie movement thing. So it’s an interesting juxtaposition and also interesting that they all started to play that music as if they were admiring Hank Williams or something– but it was from their time. That’s all an interesting thing when you think about it.
Well, let’s talk about This Highway, let’s talk about the record a little bit. When you recorded it, how much did ya’ll do live?
We did a good amount of it live. And then… Well, we basically had Jim Campilongo on guitar, my friend John Shannon playing Nashville-strung acoustic guitar, we had a piano live, bass drums and John Graboff played pedal steel live, and then Luca Benedetti, who also produced it– he played guitar on a few songs. So he would also play live with us. We went back and over-dubbed some guitar parts and a little bit of steel parts, but a lot of that stuff was pretty live on the spot. We didn’t really edit too much steel… Which was great. And then, later on, we added fiddles. I had my friends Alex [Hargreaves] and Mike [Barnett] come in to do fiddles. And some of the vocal takes on some of the recordings I did live, and some of them I went back and re-recorded separately.
I want to talk about two tracks in particular from the record. The first one, “Songs My Mama Sang.” Now, that one– it sounded like something I’ve been listening to my whole life. It was familiar, yet it had a fresh twist on it, I think. It was compelling. Talk about that one a little bit.
Well, actually I wrote that one a good couple years before I started playing with any of these guys, but I had it as kind of a bluegrass type of song ’cause I was really into the Stanley Brothers and the Delmore Brothers– all the “brothers” bands that got me into more bluegrass as well. You know, like country blues, early country…
Was Gram Parsons a jumpin’ off point for a lot of those groups? I know you’re a fan of Gram, and a lot of those guys had big influences on him… Stanly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers in particular, we will, of course, discuss Merle Haggard… But when you were kinda gettin’ into that– was that sort of like a jumping off point?
Oh yeah! When I discovered the Byrds’ Sweethearts of the Rodeo a few months before I moved to New York– which is a little over ten years ago now– that was like, “Whoa, what is this? This is crazy!” And I discovered Gram through that. From there, I was really into Gram for a good couple years and then I kind of grew out of it a little bit. I should say– maybe that’s the wrong thing to say about it. I kind of felt like it got to me a certain amount and then I really wanted a chance to go and listen to the people that he was listening to that were kinda the real thing. Even though Gram was an amazing songwriter, but…
He was an interpreter to a degree, and you wanted to go back and hear the original language.
Right. So “Songs My Mama Sang” kind of started out as a bluegrass song, and I didn’t really have it finished. Then a couple years later, I just– I don’t know? I had thought of the song and then I decided to put it more into like a Merle kind of feel. And then I actually… I don’t know if I subconsciously… It was really unintentional, but here’s a line in there, “a song my mama sang,” that was kind of line from “Sing Me Back Home.” But it kind of just worked out ’cause at the time, when I originally wrote it, I wasn’t actually too familiar with a lot of Merle stuff. I knew “Sing Me Back Home” and a couple songs like that. So it probably subconsciously got in there, but it wasn’t intentional. But in a way it’s kind of nice ’cause it sounds intentional– like it’s a little bit of a nod to Merle. It kinda worked out.
On the other hand, we’ve got “Somethin’ Stupid.” Now, I was doin’ a little research, and I have found some other folks that have… It’s a divisive song among people who love that record. I want to know– you got this great country music record, you wrote every song on the track, or co-wrote every song on the track… What made “Somethin’ Stupid” necessary for the album?
Well, I was thinking about… I wanted to recorded one cover for the record just to have it, but I was like– if I’m gonna record something it has to be a really good one. And I’d actually thought of a Sinatra tune, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” which I think was his first recorded song ever, and I’ve always really loved that recording. Like I said, I grew up listening and hearing a lot of that stuff around the house, so I really love Sinatra. For some reason, it feels really nostalgic to me– even though, obviously, I didn’t grow up in the time period when he was a sensation. I thought about recording that tune, but I felt like I already had enough tunes that are kind of mid-tempo or like “ballad-y.” So I probably, maybe don’t really need a song like that. I just kind of shelved that idea. And then we recorded another song which was a cover, which I never released that one…
You mind me askin’ what it was? Or do you wanna save it for later?
Oh, it was… Maybe I’ll save it for later. I might include it in something in the future. Anyway, I think I was doing vocal over-dubs or something, and me and Jim were just talking about Sinatra, and he was like, “I’ve always loved that song, ‘Somethin’ Stupid.’ I always thought that would be a really cool country song– like we could make it a country song.” And I was like, “Whoa!” I was blown away, I was like, “How have I never thought that? That’s a genius idea! And it’s kinda already a country song, so it could fit really nice in the format, and it has a lot of similar changes that I have in some of my songs on this record.” So we felt like this’ll blend right in with the other songs in a nice way. And I’d become friends with Dori Freeman…
Of course, you get to have Dori Freeman on the record!
She sang on “High Class City Girl From The Country.” So I was kinda like, “Oh, this is great! I’ll just have Dori sing this duet with me.” That’s better than just having her sing back-ups ’cause she’s one of my favorite, if not my favorite contemporary singer. So I called her in to do that. This was after the main sessions we did. We went back in for another day and recorded. I think it came out really good! Some people don’t like that song. They kind of think that’s a weird song to have. It’s like the one song they don’t like that’s on the record. I’ve read that through different areas like threads and things like that. But I think it’s great.
Dale Watson… I’ve seen both your names pop up here and there. I love Dale Watson, someone you seem very akin to. He’s been very vocal over almost his entire career about the state of country music as it has evolved, as it exists today in the mainstream. Now, I guess we all need a label for what we do… I appreciate that you refer to the 18 Wheelers and This Highway as “traditional country music.” Do you feel like you’re competing with Top 40 country?
Nah, no not at all. I don’t have the bank account. I don’t have the money to get my way into that world. I’m not connected in that way, and obviously, I don’t write music that fits into that format or like what the format is now. So I wouldn’t say… I don’t even really think about all those pop country… To me, it’s like a whole ‘nother… I don’t know. It’s kinda like when someone moves into a place you used to live, and you pass by and you’re kinda pissed off that they live there now. But you’re kinda like, “That’s when I was a kid, so why do I even really care about that?” I’m not losing sleep over it. I think it’s interesting that because of people like Dale and people like Sturgill Simpson and other people who have come along, there’s starting to be a crack in the infrastructure of that whole thing. And everything has it’s time too. Eventually, people just wanna hear something new. I think more “authentic-sounding” country music will come back– or it already has, but it will continue to come back in style or whatever you wanna call it. I think that the country pop world or whatever that whole world is, they’ll find a way to make some money off that or get people in to continue to keep the attention of their listeners. At least, I think.
Well, that leads me into my next question… Continuing on with the idea of labels– it’s got its own billboard chart these days, but stylistically, Americana is a word that gets slapped on a lot of music that defies conventional categories. Do you think that being a genre that’s basically musical stew makes it easier for artists to find a greater audience doing something– not different, but certainly more dedicated?
I don’t know. That’s a tough… I don’t really know what Americana is. It’s not clear to me what that really is. I always kind of interpreted it for a while as people that were afraid to commit to capturing a really strong identity within the genre that you’re trying to play. It’s kind of a little bit like it’s mixed in with a bunch of different little things. It’s not really… I’m just more into committing to… If I’m gonna play country music, I think there’s certain parameters, and it shouldn’t really ever go too far out of those. As long as it’s you and your own individual voice, and you’re writing songs from the heart, and it means something to you and has universal themes tied in as well, then it’ll sound original. Or at least, like people say with my record, it sounds really old– but on the same note, it has a little twist, a modern touch to it. I don’t know if that really answers the question. Americana is good though as far as like lots of people who think of country music as something else, or they actually probably don’t really know what country music is, and they just think of it as something their grandparents listen to… So then Americana, they’ve heard that more recently, they know people listen to that, so they might accidently listen to more traditional sounding country music that’s also under the umbrella of Americana. It kinda works out for all of us, but if I was gonna have to be labeled as something… You know, I’ve had a few friends be like, “Careful, don’t call yourself traditional country too much ’cause you don’t wanna get pigeonholed.” That’s what I love the most. I don’t plan on making any other type of record for a long time besides country records.