A Great Country Album from the Rust Belt

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.

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. 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. 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 convention on its head: Things are looking up! But eventually the bridge comes around, and it turns out that fleeing was just a dream. When he wakes up, the guy’s girlfriend is on the phone and wants him to get his stuff out of her house.

The title track, which comes immediately after, is even more direct about leaving Ohio in particular:

I’ve been thinking that I should go
’Cause if I don’t leave now
Then I’m never gonna leave Ohio, Lord
And that’s a chance that I just can’t take
Now that I’m getting older

“The Midwest is full of drugs that end up controlling people,” McKinley told The Fader about the song. “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.”

Similarly, he remarked to Forbes that “there are a lot of people I know here who have talent, who could do something if they just went somewhere else.”

The line “now that I’m getting older” has a broader resonance as well. McKinley is reportedly 40, just a few years older than I am — which puts his birth year around 1980, near the beginning of the “Millennial” generation. Yes, we older Millennials are staring at middle age already, and you’re going to start hearing a lot more about our nostalgia and midlife crises. The Nintendo consoles of our youth are seeing popular new editions as we look back with fondness at the lost world of the 1990s, though the fact that McKinley is taking off as a musician at this age is sure to comfort us that life isn’t over yet.

But back to the core themes of this record. For several years now, especially since the election of you-know-who, the nation has often fixated on the scourge of drug addiction, the economic pressures on the Rust Belt, and the politics that led states such as Ohio to vote for our current president. I myself have written plenty about trade, opioids, and the question of why more people don’t leave struggling areas.

Die Midwestern strikes all of those notes — but it’s never explicitly political. There’s no presidential endorsement, no assigning blame for the region’s problems. McKinley just tells the story, and that’s enough.

Editor’s note: This piece has been emended since its original posting.