It’s the day before Thanksgiving and what better way to celebrate than with a country album by a man who’s thankful to be alive.
Arlo McKinley hails from Cincinnati, OH and was set on his current career trajectory after a fateful performance at Nashville’s High Watte. There he met not only his current booking agent, but also one of the big cheeses over at Oh Boy Records, and the biggest cheese of them all, the late great John Prine. The meeting led to Arlo being signed to Oh Boy and the release of his latest LP Die Midwestern this past August.
Before signing to Oh Boy, Arlo lived the life of your average American man in the former industrial midwest. He did odd jobs to keep a roof over his head while struggling with addiction. He tried to carve out time for meaningful work like songwriting with varying degrees of success. He sold drugs to make money to do things previous generations took for granted, like taking someone you’re interested in out on a date. He watched friends succumb to their vices as he stared down his own future, one that looked like a long and narrow road whose horizon appears to be the ledge of a cliff. If you’re a young buck in America, most of this should be familiar to you. Arlo lived your life, and you, Arlo’s.
Releasing a well-received record on a prestige label and getting written up in Rolling Stone and featured on NPR is no guarantee of future success, nor is it a bulwark against future periods of grinding poverty, but it is a foot planted sturdily on a different path than the one Alro was previously on, and I can’t imagine him as being anything but thankful for this new direction he’s found himself moving in.
The record itself, Die Midwestern, is a beautiful one and I hope you’ll take the time to enjoy it today. It’s as much a love letter to his home town as well as a detailing of all the things about it that nearly killed him before he could reach this point in life. It is an album steeped in roots-blues and country soul and speaks to the shadows cast by economic immiseration that makes the skies above urban centers feel perpetually overcast. It also reaches into the dirt of the surrounding fields and rural enclaves to find a knowing trauma pool in these places, like the waters of a spoiled aquifer.
“Die Midwestern” shows Arlo wondering if he’ll ever leave the state of his birth, even though its like an empty house full of ghosts, and there is nothing in the cupboards to eat. But where do you go? To stay is to starve; to go may mean meeting the same fate, but only after a greater exertion of effort. Your bones feel tired after just listening to it. “She’s Always Around” has a Hank Williams quality to its lonesome, saloon sweeping swagger. “Bag of Pills” is a sobering tale of selling drugs to be able to spend a night out with someone you like, a song that will rankle the iron around your feet with Arlo’s whiskey flavored builds and the prying tug of his urgent guitar work. The most jovial sounding track on the album is “Suicidal Saturday Night,” which seems to pull equally from the pop-country wilt of the Wallflowers and the rattling soulful shake of Arthur Alexander.
You can stream the entirety of Arlo Mckinley’s Die Midwestern via Bandcamp below: