When Cincinnati-based, alt-country singer Arlo McKinley prepared to play at the Hi-Watt in Nashville on a winter night last year, he didn’t know that John Prine was in attendance. He knew that Prine’s stepson, Jody, and wife, Fiona had come to the show, but didn’t find out that Prine himself was there until minutes before he was set to go on stage.
“I look over, and it’s John Prine!” McKinley says. “And he shakes my hand, says, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you play.’ And this is as I’m walking up to the green room to grab the band to go on stage. I went back and told the band, as we’re literally walking out on stage, ‘By the way, just met John Prine, and he said he’s excited to see us play.’”
Prine specifically praised McKinley’s fan-favorite song “Bag of Pills,” a compliment that meant the world to McKinley.
“That is still, to this day, one of the biggest achievements that I’ve had musically,” says McKinley. “Just knowing that I was even on his radar and that he would come out on a Thursday night in Nashville to see me play, that alone was enough. For him to comment on [“Bag of Pills”] and just getting validation from someone that has inspired me greatly, it meant the world to me, and I’ve said often that if everything fell apart with music, that moment and that evening, running into him and the experience that I had, it’s kind of all worth it.”
Shortly after his performance at the Hi-Watt, Prine signed McKinley to his label, Oh Boy Records. Prine tragically passed away last April from COVID-19, making Arlo McKinley the final artist he signed before his death. McKinley doesn’t take this lightly, and he is cognizant of upholding the reputation of Oh Boy Records.
“I just always wanna show my appreciation to him,” McKinley says. “It’s a weird position to be in, but I just try to represent them and that label, and what he was trying to do, and what he was doing with that label for so long.”
McKinley’s Oh Boy Records debut, Die Midwestern, came out earlier this year. It features the song John Prine praised, “Bag of Pills,” even though the track was written 15 years earlier.
“It seemed to fit the narrative of the album, the story that I was trying to tell with Die Midwestern,” McKinley says. Born and raised in Ohio, the stories he tells in his music draw from life in the Midwest. Both the good and the bad.
“I touch a lot on the opioid issue that hit the midwest some years ago, and it hit Cincinnati really hard,” he says. “That became such a big part of my life and my friends’ lives. It’s something that used to be in movies or stories, and now it’s affecting people that I love and care about.”
Country music and punk rock share a similar ethos, and listeners can hear this in McKinley’s music, since he was raised with a foot in both scenes.
“I grew up the youngest of three boys,” he says. “So, my brothers were always into punk and metal, and I would always listen to their records when they weren’t home. My dad had a real crazy record collection of classic country and obscure bluegrass stuff. So, when my brothers were home, I’d go in there and listen to his stuff. It’s all very similar.”
While the genres are sonically different, McKinley uses a punk approach to writing country music.
“A lot of simple country songs are just three chord songs and honest lyrics. And that’s what punk always was to me.”
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