Feature: My 5 Biggest Influences – Arlo McKinley

Photo Credit: David McClister

For our latest ‘My 5 Biggest Influences’ feature, we spoke to Arlo McKinley, who recently released solo debut album Die Midwestern, via John Prine’s independent Oh Boy Records.

‘My 5 Biggest Influences’ is when we talk to some of our favourite upcoming and established artists, delving into their greatest influences and inspirations, to see how bands, records, tracks, friends & family, hobbies and even environments have impacted on their work and music.

More about the new LP below, but first, here are Arlo’s 5 Biggest Influences…

John Prine

John Prine was one of the first musicians that made me realize that songs and songwriting don’t have to be complicated pieces when it comes to guitar playing. Although I think he was an amazing guitar player he would often only use three chords. It heavily influenced the way that I write songs by keeping them simple musically and relying more on melody and word play to tell the story.

My Parents

Growing up I saw a lot of friends who’s parents would push them to be a certain way or try to put their kids on certain paths almost to the point where there was no freedom to think on their own. My parents guided me while allowing me the space to grow as an individual and to create my own identity, which led to me wanting to be a musician. 

90’s Punk Hardcore Scene in Cincinnati

This was the first time in my life where I saw that it didn’t take a huge label or a lot of money to pursue a career in music. I saw that if you had the right people with you that all it took was the will to get into the van and go. My brothers booked a lot of shows here in the 90’s and this was pre-internet era. They would get the address from inside the records and would write to these bands hoping that they’d here back. After a couple of years of doing that, bands in that scene started to spread the word that there’s a group of people in Cincinnati that will help you with shows, places to stay, food, etc which led to us having a nice little underground music scene here in Cincinnati. 

The Band

The Band being my all time favorite band I felt I had to put them on this list. The sound that they were able to make with having four singers always amazed me. They were one of the first bands that I heard that used harmony vocals so well and they created a sound with those harmonies that still heavily influence me today. They were also one of the first bands I heard that could tell a story so well through songs. Listening to the band vividly takes my mind on a journey to the places, people and stories that they were singing about.

Church

Though no longer an active member in any form of any organized religion, that is where I saw for the first time that music is much more than just a sound. I began singing in a Baptist church when I was very young and that was the first time I ever sang in front of anyone. I would watch as people would be moved by the music being played by whoever might be singing that Sunday morning, and it was such a beautiful thing to me. It’s where I saw that music can help heal some of the hurt that humans are hauling around and that there is much more to music than only being a sound or source of entertainment. It carries a spirit with it and if it hits you at the right time, it can be life changing.


Deeply rooted in street soul, country, punk, and gospel, with lyrics stark and arresting in their honesty, ​Die Midwestern sees 40-year-old McKinley poised for success, after he almost gave up on music altogether before he caught the attention of John Prine.

Arlo is the last artist John Prine and his son Jody signed together to their label Oh Boy Records. Jody stated, ​“John was reserved in his praise for songwriters. 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.”

McKinley added, ​“The feeling of knowing that a hero of mine took time out of his day to come see me perform is such an accomplishment in itself to me that if it all ended the next day and I found out music just wasn’t in the cards for me, I would’ve still considered everything I have done as a success.”

McKinley almost missed his big break, which came when he was offered an opening slot for Tyler Childers. His now manager was trying to reach him to offer him an opening slot and Arlo initially dodged the persistent unknown caller. Since, McKinley has been humbly sharing stages with kindred musical spirits John Moreland, Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle.

Die Midwestern ​was recorded at Memphis’ legendary Sam Phillips Recording Service and was produced by GRAMMY award-winning Matt Ross-Spang along with an all-star Memphis band of Ken Coomer, David Smith, Will Sexton, Rick Steff, Jessie Munson and Reba Russell.

McKinley recorded ten songs – some dating back fifteen years – all penned with a weight, honesty and gritty-hope that comes from living in Cincinnati, the rustbelt city where his songs were born.

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