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A Great Country Album from the Rust Belt

McKinley blends his country with a lot of folk and a little rock, with a backbone of acoustic guitars and layers of piano and fiddle to flesh things out.

Arlo McKinley in the video for Die Midwestern. (via YouTube)

Arlo McKinley’s Die Midwestern captures the struggles of southern Ohio.

I can count on one hand the country artists whose music I’ve truly loved. I’m a hard-rock and metal guy at heart, and I’m not much into twang.

But I like to branch out once in a while, I’m a sucker for a good album title, and I was raised in Wisconsin, so I couldn’t resist clicking on Die Midwestern when Amazon Music’s algorithms recommended it to me. I’ve been listening to it every day since, and Arlo McKinley has now joined the rarefied ranks of country musicians whom even I enjoy.

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His soulful crooning is delivered in an accent that ignoramuses from way up north, such as yours truly, might think sounds southern — though it’s really more Appalachian, as he hails from Cincinnati. (The Cincinnati accent has been called “almost southern, but not.”)

His real contribution has more to do with his region than it does with his genre. He’s written a set of great songs, sorrowful tracks that bring to life the malaise of the 21st-century Rust Belt in a way that’s far more personal than political.

The opioid epidemic haunts McKinley’s music, and he speaks from firsthand experience. A stand-alone single he released earlier this year, called “Ghost of My Best Friend,” is about a friend’s overdose, and 2020 also brought the overdose of his mother. The best song on Die Midwestern is called “Bag of Pills”; the lyrics involve both dealing and using drugs:

You want it, I can feel it

Got a bag of pills I’ve been dealin’

So I can take you drinkin’

Don’t tell me about a love thing

We’ll get high and talk until mornin’

Then you can catch me sleepin’.

It’s also one of the least country tracks here. In its instrumentation and overall vibe, it almost reminds me of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.”

And if the album is anchored in Ohio’s troubles, it’s also saturated with thoughts of leaving. In the record’s opening lines, our protagonist and his girlfriend “hit the road” — a happy scene that carries the baggage of past troubles, as the chorus notes that “for the first time in a long time, we were all right.” There’s an old joke that when you play a country song backward, you get your wife back, your dog back, your pickup truck back, and so on, and this would appear to turn that…

Robert VerBruggen

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