An endorsement by the late lamented John Prine is not to be sniffed at. Arlo McKinley was the last artist Prine signed to the Oh Boy record label he ran with his son Jody up to his death early in 2020.
The Cincinnati-based artist released an album with his band, The Lonesome Sound, in 2014 but 'Die Midwestern' is billed as his debut solo record. It was recorded in Memphis' Sam Phillips Recording Service and produced by Matt Ross-Spang. As you might expect, the sound is admirably crisp and direct.
It's been a long time coming. McKinley's now in this 40s and some songs are fifteen years old. There's ample evidence that he has spent plenty of his time in bars. In Gone for Good he sings of drinking away his shame.
The ten tunes are rooted in street soul, country. punk and gospel but McKinley adds "I write songs in a punk rock way." The influence of Cosmic Americana is also ever present. The ghost of Gram Parsons looms large over tracks like She's Always Around and Walking Shoes. The fact that love hurts is accepted as a given but the singer remains an incurable romantic. In Whatever You Want he recklessly declares: "I'd gladly drown with you out in the sea."
The material is country orientated and well suited to the full band arrangements. It helps enormously that McKinley is blessed with a voice that oozes authenticity. He says "Song writing has to be real. I'm not writing fiction. To me it is just about honesty."
The title track tells of his love/hate relationship with Ohio. Prine singled out Bag of Pills as a particularly fine tune. This centres on how drugs become a commonplace curse but also touches on loss of faith. Suicidal Saturday Night is one of several songs about the complications that can arise even when seeking innocent fun.
Nothing on this album breaks new ground but McKinley treads a well-worn path with dignity and confidence.
Arlo McKinley's website