For those clamoring to make country music sad again, Arlo McKinley is your champion. Wielding heartfelt lyrics of despair akin to Jason Isbell and a hellacious holler that draws comparisons in ferocity to Tyler Childers, the 40-year-old burst onto the Americana scene last year with his solo debut Die Midwestern, released through John Prine’s Oh Boy Records.
For years, McKinley made a name for himself throughout the rust belt and Appalachia; first with Jeremy Pinnell in the folk duo The Great Depression and later Arlo McKinley & The Lonesome Sound. Both groups incorporated gospel, metal, punk and country with down to Earth, blue-collar songwriting.
His most recent record also provides such depth, documenting his love/hate relationship with his home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite the opioid epidemic that has devastated the region - his family and friends included - he knows that no matter where life takes him, he’ll always ‘Die Midwestern’. The record even closes on the hopeful ‘Walking Shoes,’ a confessional devoted to kicking his own bad habits and saying goodbye to his former self. In saying farewell, McKinley has undoubtedly matured in his personal life and as an artist.
After nearly giving up on his musical pursuits, things have taken quite the turn for Mckinley. Having been brought in by his musical hero Prine, he found a team that understood his creative desires - guiding him on the road to true creative fulfilment. As we sit down to mull over the five essentials he couldn’t live without, McKinley shares what kept him going through such a period of self-doubt and what continues to bring him comfort in both music and life.
I’ve got a lot of metal and hip-hop in my collection, which surprises lots of people. I’m a big fan of both King Diamond and Post Malone, even going as far as to make a video of myself performing Post’s ‘Go Flex’ a while back. Of course, I’ve got a bunch of John Prine on vinyl too - I’m always searching for original pressings of his. It’s led me to collect multiple copies of many of his albums as I unearth earlier and earlier pressings. One of the latest records I’ve got in is from a great band out of Minnesota called Night Moves - that’s really good. Those and Justin Townes Earle have been my go-to’s recently.
I honestly have more books than I need at the moment. I read a lot about musicians in general. There’s a British writer, Barney Hoskyns, whom I like a lot. He wrote a book on The Band called Across the Great Divide: The Band and America - that’s fantastic - along with another on Tom Waits, Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits, that I’m currently reading. I’m also a horror nut, I’ve been diving into a Nicholas Grabowsky novel recently. Similar to my record collection, my book collection is a bit all over the place.
“I’ve been making a conscious effort in the last year of little to no touring to spend more time with family and friends. My mother passed away last spring, just as COVID-19 hit - it really rocked my world. The pandemic, while heartbreaking in many respects, was a blessing in disguise - it gave me the time to cope with the emotions of losing her, rather than constantly being on the road and holding those feelings inside me and not processing them. It also gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate certain aspects of my life; to see what’s most worth the investment of my time and attention, with relationships being something I’ve prioritized more of a focus on. Prior to the pandemic, I was running myself ragged - both musically and in many other ways - so the time at home has been a refreshing and much-needed reset. That being said, I’m more excited than ever to get back to playing shows safely to an audience.
WhizzBangBAM Management have not just been instrumental in helping to kickstart my career, but have also helped me to straighten up my personal life. I actually connected with them and the Oh Boy folks on the same night, during a show I had at the High Watt in Nashville. Jody Whelan, the director of operations, approached me after the show with John Prine by his side - they let me know they liked my music and were interested in working together. I remember freaking out in the moment and doing everything I could to play it cool in front of one of my biggest influences and heroes. Talks continued for a while before I officially signed with the label on my birthday in 2020. To say it’s a joy to be a part of the legendary John Prine’s label is a massive understatement. I still consider that moment one of, if not the biggest success of my career so far. He’s been an influence of mine for so long. It’s one of those moments that you dream about but never believe will come true. I just wish I’d had more time to get to know him on a personal level before his passing.
Arlo McKinley's latest album, Die Midwestern, is out now via Oh Boy Records. Watch the video for 'She's Always Around' below.