Red Dirt Singer-Songwriter Mike McClure Finds Sense of Self-Renewal on ‘Looking Up’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Photo by Chrislyn Lawrence

From Mike McClure’s first strains in his compelling opener, “I Am Not Broken,” this writer had to check the CD jacket to ensure it was not Steve Earle singing, which isn’t a bad thing. After all, McClure’s native Oklahoma borders Earle’s birthplace of Texas so some of that “red dirt” twang may be common to both as is a struggle with addiction and finding a new outlook. Yet, those aside, one can point to high-quality songwriting from McClure on Looking Up. McClure is a regional legend, having released nine albums of his own, working closely with Joe Hardy, the famed ZZ Top producer, and engineer, in the decade before Hardy’s death in 2019. Yes, McClure has been away from the studio for a while now but Looking Up represents quite the triumphant return. Listeners may be more familiar with McClure as a founding member of the band The Great Divide or as a producer for Oklahoma-based bands, the Turnpike Troubadours, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, and many others. He came up in Stillwater with that esteemed group of artists including Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Steve Ripley, and Jimmy LaFave.

These ten tracks find McClure in a highly productive period of self-renewal, almost a spiritual reawakening that has him sober and appreciative of living life in the moment. That very sentiment runs through the anthem “I Am Not Broken,” an indelible track that will linger in a listener’s head for days. On “Distractions” McClure recasts a previously recorded track, singing about not letting diversions keep you from digging into the truth. This new line did not appear in the original – “You are not your past,” reflecting again his current state. “Holiday Blown” scrutinizes addiction as told through a soldier back from war and affected by the many repercussions of combat in everything he tries to take in. McClure lends an empathetic shoulder. 

McClure and his partner, Chrislyn Lawrence, created and produced the album at his own studio in Ada, OK. Lawrence adds the harmony vocals, McClure plays guitars and five other local bandmates support them with a range of instruments that include, B3, sax, accordion, violin, octave violin, cello, and trumpet with bass and drums. McClure finds inspiration in the natural things around him, as portrayed in the self-reflective “Orion,” which also has some stinging lead guitar. As he begins “Here I Am,” he sings of running away, only to realize his current predicament is simply fine, as he outros with a more searing guitar. He amplifies some of that perspective in the sublimely optimistic “Become Someday,” letting us know we shouldn’t limit our possibilities. The acoustic “Dying to Try” conveys a better version of ourselves is out there waiting in the wings; we just need to find it. “Little Bit of Love” is the strongest harmony piece between McClure and Lawrence. Serving almost as a bookend to the opener, the rave-up “Sword and Saddle” decries ambivalence, saying instead that we need to carefully listen and then act with conviction.

McClure echoes the words of his songs in this statement, “I’ve been sober for a year, and I’ve been doing yoga and meditation. I’m in a healthy and love-filled relationship. I haven’t been home of one steady spot very much for the past 25 years of being a touring musician. Since being off the road these past few months, we’ve been tending to a garden, raising chickens and writing again. Our hands in the dirt, healing, and learning ways to think about and talk about sobriety and life, with each other, with strangers, and especially with my two daughters – they’re 21 and 17. Being here at home with them, and being truly present for the first time, has allowed some healing to begin for us all. It’s been so peaceful and grounding. I’m really grateful for it all.”

We as listeners are grateful too. McClure delivers a well-conceived, highly energetic, uplifting singer-songwriter effort.

Photo by Chrislyn Lawrence

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