When John Prine comes to see you play a show in Nashville, you know you’re onto something. Even for someone who has been singing since they could talk – as Cincinnati-based Country songwriter, Arlo McKinley, has – seeing one of the greatest songwriters to ever pluck a six-string and pen a verse in the audience is a one-of-a-kind moment. McKinley, who later signed to the now-late Prine’s Oh Boy Records label, will release his debut 10-track LP, Die Midwestern, on August 14th with the spirit of hall of famer in his heart.
“It was the first and only time I’ve been just star struck,” says the 40-year-old McKinley, recalling the performance. “It was a surreal moment knowing that he’s there to watch you do what you do. It means the world to me.”
Prine, who passed away before he and McKinley could strike up a relationship, is famous for all-time songs like “Angel of Montgomery” and “Dear Abby.” McKinley, who was the final artist Prine signed to his label, is poised to keep Prine’s legacy of stellar American writing alive, while simultaneously adding to the vision Prine had when starting Oh Boy Records in 1981.
“It’s an honor one-hundred-percent to be able to contribute to a vision that he had when he started this label,” McKinley says. “The label has continued to grow and for him to take the time out of his day to even just listen to what I was doing, to come to a show and say he was excited to see me play, it’s incredible.”
McKinley, who was raised singing in a Baptist church by the age of 8-years-old, continued his love of music through the years. The now-big-voiced performer built his vocals by mimicking the greats like Otis Redding and Van Morrison. He played in punk rock bands in high school but it wasn’t until his 20s that he started to write songs of his own. He wrote about what he knew, what he could trust in himself. He wrote about his life experiences.
Growing up in Cincinnati, McKinley, like many Americans in the 21st century, was exposed to the opioid crisis. He wasn’t immune to their affects. Unfortunately, McKinley got caught up in narcotics. On his new record, McKinley writes about the debilitating lifestyle several times, including in the song, “Bag Of Pills.” On the track, McKinley tells the true story about selling pills of Valium to earn money for a date and go drinking.
“Since that song was written,” McKinley says, “I’ve got at least 10 friends lost because of that stuff. The song has since taken on a more serious note. Some of us got clean, some of us are working on it and now some aren’t here anymore.”
Around the time he wrote “Bag Of Pills,” McKinley began to get disillusioned with music. He walked away from songwriting from 2008 through 2011. In that time, he delivered tuxedos at night, driving them the 263 miles to-and-fro from Cincinnati to Detroit. But when he came back to the art form, he approached the work differently. He found that he was more open to what he wanted to write, which songs and genres he wanted to investigate. He cared less – if at all – about what other people thought about him or his music. And, of course, he flourished.
“If I wrote a soul song, I’d put it next to a bluegrass song,” McKinley says. “I was more open to going about it the way I wanted to.”
McKinley’s hometown of Cincinnati is on the border of Ohio and Kentucky. It’s less than 500 miles from Memphis, one of the blues capitols of the U.S.A. The city is cut by the Ohio River. And while Cincinnati doesn’t have a “music scene” today like Memphis or New Orleans, it was home to King Records’ glory days with the likes of James Brown. Cincinnati cares about music and, as a result, McKinley found himself regularly steeped in it. He was able to learn from it and music changed his life.
McKinley’s debut LP is strong. The songwriting is tight, the production is nuanced and tasteful and the lyrics carry heft and hope. Standouts include the honky-tonk, “Suicidal Saturday Night,” and lamenting, “Ghost Of My Best Friend.” But despite his recent success, McKinley says it’s important to him that he never loses connection with his audience. Truly, that’s the sturdiest aspect to the whole process. He’s had a listener tell him that his music made them want to live again through cancer and maintaining that human closeness is paramount.
“One of the reasons it’s important to me is that I want everyone to know I’m just a human being,” McKinley says. “We often put musicians on higher pedestals. But we all deal with the same things. So, I just try and be honest and let people know that the hard stuff they’re going through, I’m right there with them. I’m going through it with them, too.”
If you dig Arlo, consider a pre-order of his album. It is available at this link.