The late John Prine was by all accounts an incredibly kind-hearted man, but he was not easily impressed. So his decision to sign Arlo McKinley, an Ohio-born 40-year-old singer-songwriter still yet to release his debut album, to his own Oh Boy Records earlier this year is a sign of just how striking McKinley's songs can be. “John was reserved in his praise for songwriters," his son, Jody, said in a statement announcing McKinley's signing earlier this month. "I played him a couple of Arlo’s songs and he heard 'Bag Of Pills' and said, ‘that’s a good song,’ which for him was very high praise. He loved Arlo’s voice, this big guy with a sweet, soulful, gospel voice. He loved the dichotomy of the hard life lived, presented through such beautiful songs, and John was very excited about the promise of the album’s release.”
That album is Die Midwestern, a raw but perfectly balanced album laced with existential crises, addictions, and world-weary resilience. Produced by Matt Ross-Sprang, who engineered Prine's final album The Tree of Forgiveness, Die Midwestern features a stellar backing band of Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco), Rick Steff (Cat Power, Hank Williams Jr.), and Reba Russell (Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison). But McKinley's voice is the headline event, rousing when the band rises ("Whatever You Want," "Gone For Good") but gnarled and vulnerable on its many more sonically subdued moments.
McKinley is premiering the album's title track at the top of the page. It's a song about despondence and dependence, drugs addiction in an Ohio town that starts to close in on its protagonist. In a statement to The FADER, McKinley compared it to the album's last single. “This song is similar to ‘Walking Shoes’ but putting all the blame on geography," he wrote. "The Midwest is full of drugs that end up controlling people. It’s about my love/hate relationship with Ohio. I love it because it’s everything that I am but I hate it because I’ve seen it take my loved ones lives, I’ve seen it make hopeful people hopeless. Temptations run all along the Ohio river, but it’s so hard to watch the Ohio fade in the rearview mirror.”
Listen to "Die Midwestern" at the top of the page. The album is out in full on August 14 via Oh Boy.