Stacie Hestand – Raised Rowdy Contributor
If some of your favorite country music comes out of Oklahoma, you’ve spent a night getting lost in the Turnpike Troubadours’ Diamonds & Gasoline, or you’ve sang along to an album cut from Cross Canadian Ragweed or Jason Boland and the Stragglers, you already know Mike McClure even if you don’t know his name. Simply put, Red Dirt as we know it would not exist without McClure, who, as a founding member of The Great Divide and a singer/songwriter/producer in his own right, has had a hand in many of the genre’s defining works.
Looking Up is McClure’s first album in five years, and the first release in over a decade for which he wasn’t able to partner with producer Joe Hardy (known for his work with ZZ Top). “This album is different because I’m not doing it with Joe…I met him in 2005, and we went on to collaborate up until his death last year. He was an absolute genius who taught me how to make a record. This time I’ve sat down with Chrislyn [McClure’s partner and co-producer] and not only has she given me a fresh look at how I do things, but she has also helped me grow so much emotionally that it bleeds over into the tracks.” In Looking Up, McClure has created an album that mirrors the nature of growth itself – unassuming and honest, while still possessing a quiet, unstoppable energy that carries it throughout.
Regarding the overall sound, the album is balanced and compelling. McClure’s diamond-grit vocals slide across the album’s ten tracks to shape them into a streamlined, well-constructed pillar of Red Dirt incarnate. The rock influence that’s associated with the Red Dirt genre permeates Looking Up, courtesy of McClure’s guitar licks and production as well as the host of talented musicians he brought together to work on this record: Eric Hansen (drums), Ruben Salazar (bass), Jon Knudson (B3, sax, accordion, keys), Tim Lorsch (violin, cello), Austin Mayse (trumpets), Jake Lehman (engineer – trumpets), Steve Christensen (mixing), Chris Longwood (mastering), and Chrislyn Lawrence (harmony vocals, production).
Coming after a period of healing and sobriety for McClure, Looking Up stands as an exploration of the past’s evolution into the present and eventual future. Songs like “Become Someday” dive into the idea that people aren’t limited by who they’ve been or what they’ve done, with tightly-knit, emotionally stirring lyrics:
“Well I have a heart that won’t hold polish
I got scars that you can’t see
I got tendencies I can’t abolish
there’s still a little darkness inside of me”
The same can be said for “Dying to Try”, another one of the album’s standout tracks, which opens with a keen sense of what it’s like to teeter on the brink of change:
“and there’s something that you’d kill to say
but your words just lay there and they won’t play
but there’s something in you scared and torn
and it’s dying to try to be born”
In just the eight lines that compose those two verses, McClure presents viscerally striking images with concise dexterity, tying them into the undercurrents of change and renewal that form the core of the album. While those are just examples, they represent much of the character of the music McClure released with this project. “There is a place I get to when I’m fully inspired and my mouth is connected to my heart and it all just comes flowing out,” McClure says. “That’s what I’ve been looking for for a while. But I had to get down to what was in my heart again.”
In an interesting contrast, the themes of love and loss act as foils, moving with the songs as they oscillate between light and darkness. The standout track “Holiday Blown” views a veteran struggling with addiction and the time with him his family lost as a result. Speaking about that song and his own connection to it, McClure explained: “My grandpa was a front line tank mechanic in WWII…He was on the march to Berlin that toppled the Nazis. When he came home, he stayed drunk. I imagined all of the holidays that were blown by his drinking, as well as the ones I ruined myself.” On the reverse side, McClure also explores the impact a healthy, loving relationship can have in tracks like “Here I Am” and “Your Kind of Blue.”
Overall, this project might be one of our favorite albums McClure has created. Vulnerability and authenticity always play a role in elevating a good album to a great one, and Looking Up is no exception to that rule. He pulls back the curtains on his own life, walking the line of imparting wisdom without being sanctimonious – and recognizing the help he had along the way – as the songs themselves grapple with these changes in sonically varied ways, sparking interest while still existing as a reflective, haunting, and cohesive whole.