There’s an interesting paradigm in singer/songwriter Arlo McKinley’s career. McKinley has only been on the scene since 2012; his alter ego, Tim Carr, was a back-of-the-stage fixture for many years. But when Carr moved into the spotlight, he found it necessary to adopt a new persona to handle the increased attention.
“Tim Carr wouldn’t be able to get up there and front a band — I had to shut it off and go into a different thing,” says McKinley, who took his nom de plume from his grandfathers’ names. “I don’t think my nerves will ever be good enough for me to just be up there. I’m a nervous wreck every time we play. About halfway through a show, I’ll start feeling all right.”
McKinley has had no similar hesitation in the studio. Although the imminent eponymous album from Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound is the band’s first release, it’s not their first attempt. Since forming less than two years ago, McKinley and his rootsy aggregation have taken a couple of fun but less than fruitful studio swings.
“I attempted twice to do a record before and I just wasn’t happy with how it came out so I left it alone,” McKinley says. “I wanted the first release to be something that I was completely happy with, and I think I got it this time.”
McKinley and the Lonesome Sound’s triumphant debut departs from the group’s established acoustic Roots/Folk/Bluegrass direction in favor of a more electric Americana vibe, sounding at certain atmospheric junctures like Eddie Vedder fronting a particularly inspired Crazy Horse. If the album surprises McKinley’s fervent fan base, it won’t be far from the shock that McKinley himself felt as the album was taking shape.
“Listening back, I thought, ‘There’s definitely some Neil Young here for sure,’ and he’s an obvious, huge influence,” McKinley says. “People say, ‘What do you classify it as?’ and I really don’t know. Some songs have a Country feel, some are stripped back. The biggest influence — and not in trying to sound or write like him — is Robbie Robertson, and the way he can write songs that are completely different from each other.”
The seeds of the album were planted last year when McKinley and a group of musical cohorts, including local music dynamo Kelly Thomas, assembled to celebrate the release of McKinley’s Spirits of Hank, a Hank Williams tribute.
Thomas cornered McKinley and made him an unrefusable offer.
“We made a deal that night,” McKinley recalls. “Kelly said, ‘I want to help you put this record out.’ If it wasn’t for her, this record wouldn’t even be happening right now. She believed in it and wanted to do it. I got a lineup that I enjoy playing with, and we got together and nailed it.”
Perhaps one of the new album’s most astonishing aspects is that this version of the Lonesome Sound was freshly minted when McKinley tapped them for recording. The band — bassist Tyler Lockard, drummer Brian Pumphrey, Alone at 3AM keyboardist Sarah Davis, ex-Sleeping Dogs guitarist Zach Rowe and violinist Sylvia Mitchell — had barely gelled as a unit when McKinley corralled them to record the album. During the single eight-hour recording session, McKinley ran the band through the songs twice; by the third take, they had them down cold.
“It happened real quick and everyone was into it,” McKinley says. “It was just hanging out, playing songs and Elton (Clifton) hit record and it really worked out. I just wanted a simple recording that shows what I’m trying to get at.”
To capture a live feel, McKinley and Thomas, the album’s producer, opted to record in the Revival Room at Newport’s Southgate House Revival. Appropriately, the album bristles with an immediacy and spontaneity often lost in a traditional studio’s technical structure.
“We got Elton Clifton from New Fidelity, and Brian Jester brought a portable studio and set it up on a Sunday afternoon,” McKinley says. “I was on stage, Sylvia was playing fiddle in the hallway down the steps, we had the guitar amp in the bathroom and we had our drummer secluded with a little wall around him. We recorded up there in a day; it seemed like the third take was the charm. I went back (to New Fidelity) later and did the harmonies over it, but beside those vocals it’s a completely live record. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had recording, for sure.”
McKinley has logged plenty of studio time with previous groups, but the new album represents his debut as both bandleader and original songwriter. A succession of teenage Punk bands eventually led him to collaborate with Jeremy Pinnell in The Great Depression (McKinley quickly credits Pinnell as being one of his primary songwriting inspirations, followed by his brothers’ Punk and his father’s Bluegrass record collections and the Baptist hymnal), which resulted in a string of gigs that found him in a vocal support mode.
With the Lonesome Sound, McKinley is easing into his new frontman role.
“I did The Great Depression records, sang on (Pinnell’s) Light Wires’ records, sang on Jeremy Pinnell’s new record,” McKinley says. “I’ve always been a back-up singer guy, and now I guess I’m stepping out front.”
McKinley has come a long way in just two years. He convened the first iteration of the Lonesome Sound in late summer 2012, quickly rehearsing for a gig he’d booked before he even had a band. In the interim, the Lonesome Sound has shifted personnel, grown from a trio to a sextet, and run the gamut of Americana music. Already a peer/fan favorite, McKinley and the Lonesome Sound are guaranteed to attract a wealth of new listeners with their official debut album, which will likely inspire plenty of end-of-year love as well. Not bad for a guy who almost bailed on his music career.
“We stopped doing The Great Depression in ’08 and I stayed away from music for a while,” McKinley says. “Nothing bad, I just didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing it, and I wasn’t confident as a songwriter. But people were telling me it was good and I should do something with it. Once I started getting with the right people and getting more confident, it became something that people were telling me I was good at. So why waste the talent if it’s there?”
ARLO MCKINLEY AND THE LONESOME SOUND celebrate their debut album release April 19 at the Southgate House Revival with guests Lonesome Jared and Billy Wallace. Info/tickets here.