Impressing the legendary John Prine with your songwriting is a little bit like having Picasso say you’re a pretty good artist. Shortly before he passed away, Prine heard Arlo McKinley’s “Bag of Pills” and signed the Ohio-born artist to his label, Oh Boy Records. Hearing the songs on McKinley’s debut album, Die Midwestern, it’s easy to hear what led Prine to this signing decision. Using a seamless blend of country and folk, McKinley has drawn on his life of good times, bad decisions, and painful breakups to craft a collection of ten songs that have a timeless, instantly classic feel, like songs you swear you’ve heard before.
The secret is twofold. Besides possessing an uncanny ability to translate relatable life moments into eloquent lyrics – something McKinley does all over this wonderful, sprawling album – he also executes the songs with a plaintive, deeply expressive voice and a deep bench of seasoned musicians. Recorded in Memphis with Grammy-winning producer Matt Ross-Spang, the band on Die Midwestern includes Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco), Rick Steff (Cat Power, Hank Williams Jr.), and Reba Russell (Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison). To attract this kind of firepower speaks volumes about McKinley’s songs.
A lot of the lyrics on Die Midwestern are rooted in restlessness. The album begins simply and directly with “We Were Alright”, as acoustic guitar accompanies McKinley’s voice. “We hit the road,” he sings. “I said ‘tell me where you’re wantin’ to be and that’s where we’re gonna go / if it takes my life.'” The song takes the form of a gentle but earnest country ballad and is full of surprising directness and emotional honesty that puts it several notches above the pandering style of contemporary, run-of-the-mill country. McKinley is breathing the rarefied air of contemporaries like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.
He gets a bit rowdier with the title track, a twangy shuffle with plenty of warm fiddle runs and references to his home state. “I’ve been thinking that I should go,” he sings. “‘Cause if I don’t leave now then I’m never going to leave Ohio.” He continues, “And that’s a chance that I just can’t take / Now that I’m getting older.” As McKinley hits his forties, he’s well aware that time is marching on, and there’s a big, wide world to explore.
The song that caught Prine’s attention, “Bag of Pills”, showcases McKinley’s uncanny ability to recreate stark, unvarnished moments of desperation and addiction. “You want it / I can feel it,” he sings determinedly, “Got a bag of pills that I’m dealing / So I can take you drinking.” As the band swirls masterfully around him, McKinley’s emotions hit the roof with a desperate plea as he acknowledges the state he’s in. “Hail Jesus / Can you save me / Didn’t think so, guess that you’re busy.”
Much of the loss and regret chronicled on Die Midwestern revolves around relationships, obviously tried-and-true subject matter for country and folk artists of all stripes. But McKinley imbues the songs with a naked honesty that sounds like the songs were written in the immediate moments of a breakup or a difficult life situation. They have that kind of urgency. “My heart is rusting / I’ve been broken, and I’ve been busted,” he sings in “Once Again”, a song that stings with the pain of a broken heart, but offers faint hope. “But if you tell me that I can trust it / Then maybe this heart can love once again.”
While the ballads are emotionally arresting and uniquely majestic, McKinley and his band can conjure up classic country with the best of them, particularly on the stunning, honky-tonk ramble of “She’s Always Around”, sounding like the favorite selection on a dusty roadhouse jukebox. With McKinley’s plaintive crooning, it’s a song that the late George Jones would be happy to sink his teeth into. The song, as well as the rest of Die Midwestern, has a classic feel that’s only too easy to get lost in. Love, loss, regret, recovery, determination: Arlo McKinley has – like many of us – seen plenty of both good and bad times. He’s able to translate those experiences into songs that are warm, tuneful, expertly crafted, and unforgettable.