With his eyes clenched shut, Arlo McKinley taps a beat-up black-and-white Chuck Taylor on a “The Bull Starts Here” sticker stuck to a gaudy, red Persian-style rug. Bracketed by a line-drawing of Hank Williams and a velvet painting of ’70s Elvis, the 38-year-old front man of Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound stands in the faint glow of a dartboard as he delivers a tortured country ballad to a small crowd.
McKinley’s voice bounces unamplified off particle-board walls while onlookers push through barn doors to escape the rain. Between verses, the room is quiet enough beneath the soft strumming of McKinley’s acoustic guitar and the subtle bass backdrop thumbed by his brother, Tyler Lockard, that the strike of a cigarette lighter rings out clearly over the Facebook Live broadcast I’m tuned in to along with a few hundred other remote onlookers.
Choking the last heartbreak from his Fender, McKinley tapers to the conclusion of “I’ve Got Her,” the first track on his band’s 2014 self-titled album. In front of him, the motley mix of mostly 30-somethings shuffle back to life with subdued applause.
“Everybody exhale,” a man yells from the back as clapping builds.
Beer cans crack and McKinley wipes sweat from his face with a red handkerchief. He thanks the 30 or so attendees for showing up on a Sunday night, lights a cigarette, grabs a Budweiser and makes small talk.
The punk-turned-country-crooner has just driven more than four hours from his hometown of Cincinnati, across northern Kentucky, past the band’s “home away from home” in Huntington, West Virginia, and deep into the Appalachian Mountains, to perform in a prefab shed in the tiny town of Dingess, West Virginia.
Under a cloud of cigarette smog, the barn’s owner, W.B. Walker, stands front and center with wild eyes and an audacious grin. Puffs of thick gray smoke escape from the 32-year-old’s plastic-tip cigar, passing his black-frame glasses and curling around the flat-brimmed cowboy hat riding high on his forehead.
Years before Walker started hosting shows in the otherworldly outbuilding he’s dubbed W.B. Walker’s Barn & Grill, he launched a podcast. Since putting out the first episode of W.B. Walker’s Old Soul Radio Show in 2012, he’s built a devoted following of listeners who suffer from the same affliction that drives him — an unquenchable thirst for country music.
As the downloads grow — the Old Soul Radio Show has peaked at No. 11 on the iTunes Music Podcast chart — so has Walker’s reputation for being among the very first to promote talented independent artists playing “real music.”
“No matter what the fuck they play on country radio, no matter what the fuck they play on CMT or whatever, there’s people out there, man, who are always going to fucking make real music,” asserts Walker, who was named the D.J. of the Year at the 2018 Ameripolitan Music Awards in February.
Walker’s ear for pinpointing up-and-coming artists before they breakout has earned him budding prominence among music fans tapped into the roots music scene. Walker sang the praises of Sturgill Simpson well before the Kentucky rebel broke out with 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, wowed audiences on Saturday Night Live and won a Grammy. He spun Jason Isbell years ahead of the Drive-By Truckers veteran collecting four Grammys of his own. He played Margo Price prior to her first album even hitting shelves. Dozens of other rising acts, like Cody Jinks, John Moreland, the Turnpike Troubadours, Whitey Morgan and the 78s, Cory Branan, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Lydia Loveless and Austin Lucas, saw support from Walker in the early stages of their careers as well.
A pair of independent country’s brightest young acts and perhaps the two artists most associated with the Old Soul Radio Show — Tyler Childers and Colter Wall — had barely even performed outside of their own state and province, respectively, before Walker started playing them on his podcast. Walker hosted the musicians in his Barn & Grill and predicted wildly successful futures for them long before they started touring nationally or released critically acclaimed records. As Childers, of Lawrence County, Kentucky, and Wall, of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, sell out shows across the country and beyond, seemingly reaching new heights by the week, Walker beams for the breakout success of the artists he lists among his best friends.
With a distinct delivery — a slow, cool Kentucky drawl — and a couple deft catch phrases, Walker is an irresistibly captivating personality behind the mic. His voice comes across as Appalachian Matthew McConaughey with a touch less “all right, all right, all right” and heaps more “well, hell.”
Mary Sparr, who released Wall’s debut full-length on her label, Young Mary’s Record Co., and serves as his manager, lovingly refers to the podcast host as a “hillbilly sage.” She credits Walker, a longtime friend, with playing a pivotal role in the success of Wall and countless other young artists.
“He’s a national treasure, for real,” Sparr said. “It always surprises me when people don’t know him. Then when they do know him, it doesn’t surprise me how obsessed they become with him.”
The borders of Kentucky and West Virginia are tattooed on Walker’s left forearm, an homage to the region where he’s lived almost his entire life. Walker, who goes by Brandon among friends and family, was born in South Williamson, Kentucky, in 1985. The small town in Pike County — the state’s easternmost county — is separated from West Virginia by the Tug Fork tributary of the Big Sandy River. Directly across the Tug Fork lies Mingo County, West Virginia, where Walker has called home since 2006.
Dingess is about 11 miles, as the crow flies, from the Kentucky border. Just more than 1,000 people live in the remote coal-mining community tucked in the Central Appalachians. Walker’s homestead sits along Twelvepole Creek — a six-hour drive from Nashville and a world away, geographically and culturally, from the music hubs of New York and Los Angeles. But Walker proves time and time again that he doesn’t even have to leave the Appalachian hills to find great music.
“Saying that W.B. shines a huge light on that area, it’s an understatement,” Sparr said. “He is geographically there and present, but without his taste — he’s got such good taste — without his ear, he wouldn’t be able to curate and showcase those people.”
Walker’s family, like many in the region, has deep ties to the local coal-mining tradition. Although Walker doesn’t work in the coal mines like his brother and several generations before them, he does haul the black rock as a freight train conductor for Norfolk Southern Co. It’s a demanding job, often requiring six-day work weeks, unpredictable on-call hours and many nights away from his family — his wife, Fallon, and their three young boys.
“I don’t get a lot of time off, so I guess what time I do have off, I try to make the most of it,” Walker said.
After cherished time with his wife and boys, that usually means you can find him in the Barn & Grill listening to country music, imbibing — typically cheap beer or whiskey — and recording episodes of the Old Soul Radio Show.
Tucked in wooden crates underneath an antique church pew, Walker keeps his vinyl collection on hand and in heavy rotation on the Barn & Grill turntable. The oversized shed became Walker’s personal escape after he ordered it in 2015, but he soon opened the doors to others, and as the Old Soul Radio Show grows, so does the lore surrounding the show’s transcendental headquarters.
Walker started hosting performances at the Barn & Grill, ramping up the frequency considerably in the last year or so. The recordings are released as podcast episodes alongside the usual showcase-style episodes and rarer playlist shows — or “Drinkin’ With W.B.” episodes, as Walker calls them.
With an increasing number of fans taking advantage of Walker’s recklessly cool open-door policy at the rural curiosity, a real-life Field of Dreams aura is building in Dingess.
“When you get out in that holler, when you get out in W.B.’s Bar, it’s a more hazy-like feeling, and I’m not saying it’s alcohol-induced,” Sparr reflected. “I mean, it’s a lot of good shit in one place. It’s almost like when your brain just gets overwhelmed.”
Cinder-block steps lead to a small porch on the front of the Barn & Grill. A tin Pabst Blue Ribbon logo, a spinning Lucky Strike Filters sign and a birdhouse built by “Dancing Outlaw” Jesco White are tacked to the barn-style 12-foot-by-30-foot building. Inside, neon beer signs, a lava lamp, an electric fireplace and strings of Christmas lights light the room. The walls and ceilings are nearly completely covered with framed records, concert posters, license plates, beer cans and knickknacks of all sorts.
“Some of the stuff he has on his walls is ridiculous,” McKinley said. “I’m sure it’s stuff he’s accumulated over time, but, I mean, I could spend all day in there probably just going slowly around the walls and looking at what’s there.”
A Hank Jr. rebel flag suspended over the entrance, a mounted coyote with a cigarette in its jaw, a scuttle filled with chunks of coal and a 5-foot cutout of Hank Sr. are among the items that make regular appearances on Walker’s social media posts.
“It is just filled to the brim with some of the coolest shit ever,” Sparr said. “It’s like walking into W.B.’s mind in a good way.”
McKinley, who plans to release a new album, Die Midwestern, Vol. 1, this summer, had heard all about the Barn & Grill before he played there, but it didn’t prepare him for his first time through the doors and into the spotlight of the venue that can fit 30 uncomfortably.
“It was about the closest thing to a religious experience that I’ve had in a long time,” McKinley said. “It was strange. It’s emotional. It really is. There’s a lot to it. You leave feeling good. I don’t see how you can be there and leave feeling like you didn’t just experience something kind of special.”
Tyler Childers is no stranger to the Barn & Grill, as a performer or just to share a few beers and laughs with Walker. The 26-year-old mountain music phenom, whose album Purgatory was one of the most well-reviewed country albums of 2017, was around Dingess a lot less often during a busy year though.
Walker remembers the exact day he first heard Childers — Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. It was the same night he went to a Lucero concert at the V Club in Huntington, West Virginia. After getting home from the show, still buzzing from Lucero’s set and a handful of beers, he saw a Facebook message from an old friend telling him he had to hear this eastern Kentucky kid with a golden voice. Despite the late hour and his inebriated state, Walker played a track.
“I sobered up immediately,” Walker said. “It fucking just grabbed me. It fucking just spoke to me.”
Walker searched for more info on Childers and couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a picture of the gifted young singer. Walker had just been standing right next to the skinny redhead at the Lucero show hours earlier.
Less than two weeks later, Walker played Childers on the Old Soul Radio Show for the first time. The two Kentucky natives met at a show a few weeks after that and hit it off immediately.
“He’s just a good ol’ boy,” Walker said. “I mean, I hate to use that phrase because it’s probably played out a little bit, but he’s just a good ol’ boy.”
Since the first episode that Walker played Childers’ music, he’s been an unabashed promoter of the young songwriter’s inspired brand of folk, country, rock and bluegrass.
“We all knew all along that what we were witnessing was special and that it was only a limited amount of time that we were going to be able to see it in that facet, in that kind of spectrum, in that light,” Walker said. “He deserves the fucking world, man. He deserves it all.”
Like Childers, the spotlight on Wall has grown significantly since the beginning of 2017, and his self-titled debut was Vinyl Me, Please’s Best Country Album of 2017. Walker first featured Wall on Dec. 1, 2015, Episode 100 of the Old Soul Radio Show, which also happened to be the very first show recorded in Walker’s brand-new Barn & Grill. A few weeks later, Walker decided to shoot Wall an invite to play at the Old Soul Radio Show three-year anniversary concert at the V Club in Huntington, West Virginia.
“I knew that it couldn’t happen with him being from fucking Canada and me being from fucking West Virginia,” Walker said. “But, by God, it happened.”
Walker’s willingness to book the young musician — just 20 at the time — at a generous rate provided the security Wall needed to anchor his first U.S. tour.
“W.B. paid up what Colter was worth, maybe not what he would have been worth in the eyes of a lot of club owners at that time but what Colter was worth to W.B. and, without that financial backing at that time, Colter couldn’t have done that tour,” Sparr said.
Wall returned the favor on his debut full-length, which features a short track of Walker introducing the B-side as if it’s an episode of the Old Soul Radio Show.
“I was just fucking tore all to hell,” Walker said of the night Wall asked him to be on the album. “It took me like eight hours to record that shit that I recorded. I’m really fortunate and blessed that he thought enough of me to do that.”
Weeks after McKinley performed at the Barn & Grill, Walker was still raving about the memorable set.
“I probably had 30 people in here, 35 people in here, and everybody was fucked up,” Walker said. “And I’m not meaning fucked up drunk or high or whatever. Arlo fucking played, man. I tell you, ol’ Hank Williams was good about ripping hearts out, but I believe Arlo McKinley writes the saddest songs that I’ve ever heard in my life.”
From Walker, a veritable Hank Williams historian and diehard fan, there might not be a higher compliment.
“I’m honored that he thinks highly of me because, yeah, there are some people who have walked through there that are now selling out shows two nights in a row in cities and stuff like that and he had them there back when these people were probably playing in front of 10 people in clubs,” McKinley said.
As far as Walker’s concerned though, he’s just sharing the music he loves.
“If people like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t,” Walker said. “But, regardless, I’m just going to do my thing. I’m going to continue to keep being me. I won’t be here forever. If people like what I do, they can listen. If they don’t like it, they can tune out.”