Cover art from Orville Peck’s Show Pony. John Waters has a role in the song “Legends Never Die.”

Taking a short break from films, books, visual art, spoken-word comedy, fashion and camp counseling. Baltimore-based multi-tasker John Waters has a role this month in a new country music video, “Legends Never Die.”

“Legends Never Die” features masked cowboy crooner Orville Peck in a duet with country music singer Shania Twain, and Waters in a surprise vocal performance as a radio DJ teeing up their show. Waters isn’t seen in the video, but his Baltimore accent, at the beginning of the video, is unmistakable.

How did Waters, known for his Baltimore-based movies such as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, wind up in a country music video?

Waters and Peck have a clear explanation for how they came to work together, and it goes back to before the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading. Their story is like an old-time country music ballad, about how friendships can grow against all odds.

When they finally decided to move ahead, it came together very quickly. They still haven’t met in person, because Waters taped his contribution on his cell phone and sent it from a remote location.

“I recorded it last Monday [August 10] and it came out on Thursday [August 13],” Waters said. “It happened instantly.”

Here’s the condensed version: Peck is a rising star in the music industry, a gay singer and songwriter whose deep baritone voice has been likened to that of Roy Orbison and a very early Elvis Presley. He’s also an enigma: in performances and interviews, he never appears without a fringed mask that hides his face, like the Lone Ranger. It’s his signature.

Another thing: Orville Peck isn’t his real name. It’s a pseudonym, and that makes him even more mysterious. Now based in Canada like Twain, he’s reluctant to talk about biographical details such as his age or where he grew up. Narrowing it down a bit for his fans, he has admitted to being born “in the southern hemisphere.”

One detail Peck does acknowledge is that he’s a big fan of John Waters. He confided in an interview this year that he admired Waters more than anyone when he was growing up, wherever that was.

“John Waters was my absolute number one idol, inspiration, when I was a teenager,” he said on Sloppy Seconds with Big Dipper and Meatball, a podcast hosted by rapper Dan Stermer and drag artist Logan Jennings. “John Waters changed my entire perception of art and life, really.” 

Peck said he heard that Waters mentioned him during his spoken-word show at Christmastime last December and initially didn’t believe it because it sounded too good to be true. He also found out that he and Waters have the same booking agency.

Peck asked his agent if he could have Waters’ private phone number, making up a story that he was supposed to call him. A month later, while he was between shows during a tour in Australia, Peck worked up the courage to call Waters out of the blue.

“I had had [his number] in my email for like a month maybe at this point, and I was always just like staring at it, wondering what am I going to do with this?” Peck said in the podcast.

“Do I text him? Does he even have a cell phone? He’s like a weird guy. And so we’re sitting in this lobby and we were in Sydney or Melbourne I think and we were waiting for the transport to take us to the festival and it was going to be like an hour in the lobby. I just thought like, OK, f**k it, I’m just going to call him, just try it. I didn’t even know what time it was in Baltimore.”

To his surprise, Peck said, Waters knew exactly who he was.

“I call him and I just hear like, (deep voice) ‘Hello?’ and I was like, ‘Hi, is this John?’ And he goes, ‘Who is this?’ And I said, ‘Oh, hi John, this is, this is Orville Peck. And he said, ‘Orville Peck? Well, I’m a big, big fan.’ And then, I mean I obviously just like disintegrated and like left my body and then he basically just chatted with me for like 45 minutes and I was laughing so hard people were staring at me.”

Peck said Waters turned out to be exactly what a fan might expect.

“If you’re a fan of John Waters, if you’ve seen any of his films or read any of his books or anything, he is exactly the person you think he will be. He’s so knowledgeable and he just wants to chat about history and references and the kind of funny oddity of mundane life. He was cracking me up so hard I was like crying-laughing.”

John Waters (c) Greg Gorman

Since then they’ve kept in touch, mostly by text, and that made it easier for Peck to see if Waters would be in one of his videos.

“It’s really crazy,” Peck said in the podcast. “If my career ended tomorrow, I genuinely would be happy knowing that I got to make a connection with someone that …I looked up to my whole life, you know?”

Waters, meanwhile, said he has admired Peck since he first heard his music several years ago, and that’s why he talked about him in his Christmas show. He said he was turned on to Peck’s music by a friend in Baltimore, Scott Huffines, the original owner of Atomic Books. Now, he says, they have a “mutual admiration society.” 

“I love him. I’m such a huge fan of his,” Waters said in a phone interview after the video came out. “He just has an amazing voice, that’s all. Plain and simple. The very first time I heard his voice, it was just amazing. And I think the fact that he’s gay and maybe has a little bit of a punk rock background and country altogether, it couldn’t be more up my alley. He’s a perfect new singer… He could be singing with a bag over his head and he’d be a star, if you ask me.”

Waters said Peck reminds him of a rockabilly and rock and roll singer named Roddy Jackson, who was popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

“I just love his music,” he said of Peck. “I think he’s such a talent… He can really sing. That’s the whole thing. There’s no gimmick. You can wear anything you want. With that voice, you don’t need a gimmick, you know? I think he’s very handsome underneath there. That makes it even better.”

Waters said he got a message from Peck around August 8 or 9, asking if he would be in the video. The role called for Waters to be a DJ from the south talking about Peck on the radio, while fans sat in their cars at a drive-in theater waiting for Peck to begin a live, COVID-19 compliant concert.

“Is it hot enough for you yet?” the script read. “Well stick around ‘cause tonight’s gonna be hotter than a firecracker on the Fourth of July. How ‘bout that Orville by the way? That boy’s got talent with a capital T. I wonder what that ol’ boy’s doin’ tonight to beat the heat…”

Waters agreed to do it right away.

“I just did it on my phone,” he said. “I was in California when he asked me to do it…I sent three takes to him. It was his idea to do it like, country, from the south. I did the version you heard, a more normal version and another version. But it was his idea. I just followed directions. You think it was a Baltimore accent? I guess whenever I try to do a southern accent, it creeps in. As long as I didn’t sound like Mr. Ray.”

Waters said this is the first time he’s been part of a country music video. It comes nine years after he made a splash with “The Creep,” a music video with Nicki Minaj, in which he appeared onscreen introducing the main performance and speaking again afterward. He also taped a contribution to the latest Hollywood Vampires album, a project of Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper and Joe Perry.

Because his part was strictly vocal on “Legends Never Die,” Waters said, he wasn’t at the taping of the video in Nashville, which would have been a chance to meet Peck. Instead, “I recorded that in my bedroom in my San Francisco apartment,” he said.

For Waters to take part in a country music video isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem, especially a video for Peck.

Waters made a movie called Pecker, after all.  And he likes to be unpredictable. Last year, he joined athlete Megan Rapinoe in an edgy campaign for Nordstrom and Nike, even though he admits he’s “never caught a ball” in his life.

In Mr. Know it All, Waters’ latest book, he writes that he likes all kinds of music, including country, and has learned about it by listening to the Outlaw Country radio station on Sirius, where his friend Johnny Knoxville is a DJ.

“If you can’t appreciate country music,” Waters states in his book, “you have no soul.”

On their podcast, Big Dipper and Meatball asked Peck if he might make a gay cowboy movie with Waters, since they are such buds.

“I f***ing hope so,” Peck said. “At this point, I’m just so happy to have his, I guess, friendship, you know?  That’s…overwhelming enough for me.”

Waters said he doesn’t have any plans to make a gay cowboy movie, but he’s open to other projects with Peck.

“First of all, a gay cowboy movie, Warhol already did that,” Waters said. “It’s called Lonesome Cowboys, so I wouldn’t do that.  But if I was doing another movie, in a minute I would want him to be in it.”

Waters confesses that he’s not a good singer.

“Are you kidding? I would have exploited that years ago.”

 What would his muse, Divine, think of all this?

“Divine would be thrilled,” Waters said. “Divine wanted everybody to work all the time. Divine would have wanted to have her part in it. Divine would have wanted to play Shania.”

Divine in a duet with Orville Peck?

“Oh, I can picture it,” Waters said. “He wore leopard all the time anyway.”

Waters didn’t really want to say anything about Peck’s background, out of respect for the singer’s wishes. But he said he can see parallels between Orville Peck being a pseudonym and Divine being a pseudonym that he gave his high school friend, Glenn Milstead.

“It’s the same thing as when people would call Divine Glenn Milstead,” Waters said. “It was always meant meanly, in a way. Look, I have a friend named Mink Stole. What do I care how people reinvent themselves? It’s a great name. It’s a great look. And you can peek through those beads. He’s as handsome as hell.”

The way Waters sees it, Peck has taken on a new persona just as Divine took on a new persona early in his career.

“It’s the same thing,” he said. “He’s reinvented himself. He’s this person now. The same way with Divine. I never called him Glenn Milstead for 25 years. He wasn’t that person anymore.”

Did Waters take part in the video as a gift to Orville Peck?

“It was a gift for him to ask me to do it,” he said.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.