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 granddady 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.