The rise of Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound

Arlo McKinley
Arlo McKinley performing a sold out show at The Burl in Lexington, KY. Photo by Jon Grace.

On April 27th, Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound performed his second sold out show at The Burl in Lexington, Kentucky. The tone for the evening was set as the band made their way to the stage. Half a fifth’s worth of Bulleit sloshed back and forth in the bottle in Arlo McKinley’s right hand. Donning a round-bill tracker hat, an Adidas jacket and a grin that spanned a country mile, it was impossible for Arlo to hide his anticipation of playing in front of his second sold out show at the Burl since January.

Arlo McKinley’s journey has been one of a lot of highs and lows. Since releasing his 2014 debut self-titled album, he has toured the region incessantly. He’s gone from playing in front of a handful of people, to opening for Tyler Childers in some of the most iconic venues in the state, and now selling out the Burl twice on his own in a matter of months. His highly anticipated follow up, “Die Midwestern”, is supposed to see the light of day sometime later this year after a few unfortunate delays. But all the dark times have made nights like this even sweeter, and the hard road Arlo has taken to get to this point has been worth it. His songs are simplistic yet thought-provoking; his voice is immediately recognizable. He has everything needed to be the next great talent from our region, and the packed house at the Burl that night knew they were in for a special night.

He began the show with a pull from the Bulleit, and by thanking the crowd for the turn out. He mentioned how much the city of Lexington has meant to him and how it has become his new home away from home. The energy was contagious from the jump, when the band started the set with the first verse and chorus of fellow Ohio native, Johnny Paycheck, with Paycheck’s iconic “Old Violin.”

From there, they jumped right into a rousing version of “Suicidal Saturday Night”, one of his more up-tempo songs, but still decidedly mellow by most standards. What has been amazing to watch is how Arlo and the band can take a catalog of mellow, slow-tempo songs and transform them into something completely different live in concert. They take on a new life and energy, which I think is a byproduct of the band playing together more consistently. While he still does solo shows regularly, lately it’s been much more common to see him with his band backing him, which adds an incredible dynamic to his set. His upward trajectory has been aided in large part by how tight he and his band have made their live set, and the chemistry they have developed is second to none.

Before going into detailing the rest of the set, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the openers. Hailing from Asheville, NC (which is becoming a hotbed of bluegrass music with bands like Town Mountain, Unspoken Tradition, and others), the show was opened by the A Song from The Road Band. Most of the crowd weren’t aware there was going to be an opener, and everyone left beyond impressed once they finished their set.

A Song from The Road Band
A Song from The Road Band performing at The Burl. Photo by Jon Grace.

The four-piece had a powerful traditional bluegrass sound, with the typical harmonizing vocals and incredible musicianship. Their fiddle and mandolin players were especially proficient, and there were at least 6 times during their set where my cousin and I would look over at each other with a “Holy crap, these guys are legit” look painted on our faces. If these guys come around your neck of the woods, make sure to check them out.

Back to Arlo…this was probably my fifth or sixth time seeing Arlo, and he gets better every single time. You can tell that his shows in Lexington are ones he and the band especially enjoy. He took time between every other song to tell the crowd how amazing they were and how much he appreciated them. More than once he let the crowd take over the vocal duties, and you could see the joy on his face as hundreds of fans belted back every word. It was great to see all the familiar faces that evening, hailing from all over the region, all there to support Arlo at one of Kentucky’s best live music venues.

Arlo McKinley performing a sold out show at The Burl in Lexington, KY. Photo by Jon Grace.
Arlo McKinley performing a sold out show at The Burl in Lexington, KY. Photo by Jon Grace.

What made the evening even more special, was that just before the show, the Burl had a showing of the “Let the Mountains Ring Forever: The Kickin’ It On The Creek Story”. The amazing 15-minute or so documentary created by Zachary Curry showcased a behind the scenes look at Kentucky’s most down-home music event and its creators, the Roberts Family. Arlo was introduced by family patriarch Byron Roberts, and the love and admiration between Arlo and the Roberts family isn’t just lip service. You can tell that Arlo is truly grateful and appreciative of the Roberts clan and how they have helped him along his musical journey. In fact, Arlo dedicated the set to the Roberts family and the entire night had a Kickin-It-kinda vibe, with friends recalling memories from the event in between songs.

The show had a palpable energy the entire night as Arlo and company tore through an hour and a half set of some of his fan favorites like “Whatever You Want”, “Wild Horses”, “Time in Bars”, and many more. The crowd was even graced with amazing covers of “Go Flex”, “Down Low”, and “Shake The Frost”. When the band came back out for the encore, they played my personal favorite “Gone for Good” as the closing song, which capped off a perfect night. And then Arlo ended the night like only he could:

“Thanks so much for coming out, now let’s go get drunk in the parking lot!”

As David Allen Coe would say…”If that ain’t country….”

Check out Arlo McKinley online at  www.arlomckinley.com.  Don’t forget to check out the schedule at The Burl in Lexington, Kentucky at www.theburlky.com.

Jon Grace

Guest contributor, Jon Grace, currently serves as Tourism Director with the Bell County Tourism in Kentucky.  Jon helps organize the Middlesboro Levitt AMP concert series, providing musical entertainment across multiple genres.  In his free time, he enjoys attending concerts with his wife, as well as entertain others with his Audio Outlaws broadcast every Monday from 8-10pm on WRIL.  The broadcast features outlaw and classic country, Americana, bluegrass, southern rock and and blues.  Jon has contributed several stories to Kentucky Country Music to help highlight the best festivals, concerts, albums, and adventures from here in Kentucky.

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