Country music is just about every music fan’s favorite genre to dismiss and mock. If one listens to the modern country radio, they can easily understand the hatred and most likely join in on it. One of the oldest genres in modern music has fallen far from its roots and is barely recognizable in its modern incarnation. If you dig long enough you will find that there are still modern country artists that sound closer to Johnny Cash rather than Madonna with a banjo. A sterling example of this is the subject of today’s article. Forty-year-old Arlo Mckinley recently dropped his sophomore album Die Midwestern and it contains a trove of absolute songwriting gold.
Die Midwestern hits the heart and soul from start to finish. Starting with “We were Alright,” a simple strumming acoustic and stripped-down backing band accompany McKinley singing a story of taking a significant other on a road trip after a long and tumultuous time. The song takes a turn as it is revealed that the trip is just a dream the narrator is trying to get back into in order to be closer to a lost lover. This song sets the tone for what the listener is in for the rest of the album: songs that rely on the strength of the vocals and lyrics rather than over production.
The ability to tell a good story is a corner stone in music and one many miss the mark on. Arlo proves throughout this body of work that he is not one of those musicians. The title track speaks of pondering on the need to move on from his home before he gets too old to do so, a ponderance that many across the world can relate to. “She’s Always Around” talks of the metaphorical monkey on ones back that waits for a person’s darkest moments and holds them back from being happy. As the album progresses it hits a particular high note on the song “Bag of Pills.”
For those who surf the internet looking at pages like Gems on VHS, this song is not at all new. Live versions of “Bag of Pills” have been circulating for several years on platforms such as YouTube. Arlo even states in the intro to the music video for the song that he wrote the song fifteen years ago and has been unable to record a studio version he was happy with until Die Midwestern. The listener is taken through a weaving tale of hopelessness and desperation that builds on itself through its sparse instrumentation and powerful vocals. The use of dynamics provides the exact mood commanded by the lyrics and puts the perfect finish on a song that is equally dark and beautiful making for a fifteen-year work that has blossomed into absolute perfection.
Following a song like the one just covered can be a difficult task and a lot of bands would have put it towards the end of an album. This is not the case with Die Midwestern and that is a good thing for the listener. Whether it’s about trying to move on through reckless self-destruction (“The Hurtin’s Done”), or the life of a touring band (“Suicidal Saturday Night”) Arlo and his band will sing about it and sing about it well. If you have ever fallen for someone after thinking love was a myth then “Once Again” will be right up your alley, and if you haven’t “Once Again” will still be worth a listen or ten. The album finishes on its feet with “Walking Shoes” and it’s a stellar finish. With all the songs of lost love and hopelessness in Die Midwestern, a song like “Walking Shoes” and its lyrics about moving on and making peace leaves a feeling of relief and satisfaction for the listener to reflect on.
Whether you’re an old honkey tonk hero or a fan of music in general, Die Midwestern has something in it you’ll enjoy. It may never make its way onto the modern country radio stations, but that is not necessarily a bad thing because it will more than likely hold its own amongst its fore bearers and contemporaries alike. Arlo McKinley has made an album that is soulful and meaningful. It captures the human experience in a unique, yet familiar way. If you want to know what great country music is, then give Die Midwestern a listen. You won’t regret it.