Last summer, my wife and I took a trip to somewhere in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia (as someone from middle-of-nowhere, Kentucky…I say that lovingly) to attend Mountain Music Festival, an incredible event put on in large part by my buddy Charlie Hatcher. Charlie works for Whizzbangbam, a management team for Tyler Childers, John R Miller, and Arlo McKinley, among others. It was a fantastic event at a beautiful location, and had an absolutely killer line up. My wife and I moved up close to the stage as Arlo came on, and I happened to look over to see Byron Roberts and his family, who put on the premier music festival in Kentucky: Kickin’ It On The Creek. Anyone lucky enough to know Byron knows what a great person and absolute champion for Kentucky music he is. After our initial hug and hello, and even before we got to asking how each other had been, he looked me right in the eye and said “We gotta do everything we can to help this guy right here make it – he deserves it.”.
It’s something I took to heart. Not only did Arlo have all the talent in the world, but he had paid his dues and then some. We’ve had him play down in Bell County at least five or six times in the last two years, and the crowd grows each and every time. Because with every single show, he and his band got better and better. Now, they’re on the precipice of something special.
Over the past several years, we have seen a landslide of amazing music come from the Kentucky/Ohio/West Virginia music scene. Last year was an especially banner year, with artists like Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson releasing new albums to throngs of anxious fans, newer artists like Ian Noe and Charles Wesley Godwin dropping scorching debuts, and even legendary songwriters like Chris Knight release an album for the first time in eons.
But in this scene, there’s been an album on the tips of everyone’s tongues for several years now, and folks have waited with bated breath for it to materialize: Arlo’ long awaited sophomore album, “Die Midwestern”.
Well it’s finally here. And man, it was worth the wait.
Cincinnati, Ohio, native Arlo McKinley‘s last (and only) album was released in 2014. Now, six years later, he’s approaching 40 years old and has countless miles of touring under his belt since then. He has been a fixture in our regional scene for years, but is now poised to break through to the national spotlight with his new album, which will be released on the late, great John Prine’s Oh Boy Records.
Arlo has the honored distinction of being the very last act that Mr. Prine signed to his own label before his untimely passing.
I remember the first time I watched Arlo McKinley play. It was at the always-amazing Master Musician Festival in 2018 on a completely stacked bill. That show was the only time I saw John Prine, who headlined the event. I also got to see Luna and the Mountain Jets, Eric Bolander, and John R. Miller for the first time. To say it was a pretty special event is the understatement of the century (hat tip to my buddy Tiffany Finley and her crew). After Arlo’s set, I went up and introduced myself. We talked about our mutual love for John Moreland (I was wearing a shirt) and music of all kinds. The next summer, Arlo made his debut in Bell County at our Levitt AMP Middlesboro Music Series, opening for none other than John Moreland (still one of my favorite two-act bills of all time). While writing this, I wondered what it would be like for him to know that on that day, he was sharing a bill with one of his musical heroes, who would eventually sign him to his record label.
As his crowds have grown and grown (including a double sell out at the Burl on New Years), it’s become easy to tell that Arlo has the ability that only a select few have to become a national name. He has the single most important characteristic that’s required: the ability for a listener to instantly recognize his voice. His songs are often labeled as sad; and while it can be a fair description for some of his music, it’s not something I would say encapsulates his entire sound. His new album is a collection of hypnotic, almost ethereal country songs that seem to float around and lull you into a trance. Music that can do that is rare, and it’s another reason why this album is poised to take him to new heights.
“Die Midwestern” was recorded in Memphis at the legendary Sam Phillips Studio, and overseen by acclaimed producer Matt-Ross Spang, known for his work with the likes of Jason Isbell, Margo Price, and the godfather himself, Mr. John Prine. The production is impeccable, with an absolute star studded studio band behind Arlo. Studio legends Ken Coomer, David Smith, Will Sexton, Rick Steff, Jessie Munson, and Reba Russell facilitate a beautifully laid out sonic background to help showcase Arlo’s voice and songwriting without being overpowering. Arlo’s songs have always had a spatial, atmospheric element to them, one that isn’t showcased often in country music. The producer and backing band have done their homework, as that characteristic is one that isn’t lost by over-production. They found a way to bottle Arlo’s sound without distilling it too much, and the result is masterful.
The thing that makes a legendary album is how good it is as a whole, the ability to play it in its entirety without skipping a track. It’s why this album will go down as one of the strongest of 2020, without a doubt. From the simple acoustic start that gradually builds throughout “We Were Alright”, to the lamentations of being seemingly stuck in your hometown and lacking any viable options in the title track of “Die Midwestern”, or the beautifully re-arranged “Suicidal Saturday Night”, which features amazing instrumentation with fiddle and organ throughout. The album takes chances without losing Arlo’s authenticity.
It’s so great to see someone who’s given their blood, sweat, and tears to their music finally get the recognition they deserve. With this album, we’re about to see one of our own take that leap to the national stage.
It’ll be awesome to witness.
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.