In 1999, Red Dirt pioneers The Great Divide signed with Atlantic Records and released their debut major-label album, Revolutions. On the opening track, “Yesterday Road,” frontman and chief songwriter Mike McClure weaves a relatable tale about confronting change and looking back on the way things once were. Now, more than 20 years later, McClure is celebrating the release of his 10th solo record, Looking Up, and seems to have finally reached a point where looking back isn’t enough to satisfy the characters in his songs.
“I’ve been sober a year, and I’ve been doing yoga and meditation,” he said when Looking Up was first announced. While many continue to struggle with the new normal that the last six months have created, McClure has found a type of peace and hope in forced quarantine.
The newfound optimism is reflected throughout the record, beginning with “I Am Not Broken,” an anthem that finds McClure singing the title with the utmost confidence as he refuses to let his past define him. On “Here I Am,” he’s in a similar spot as he recognizes the power of a love that once was while still charging forward, confessing, “You can’t go back to who you were, ’cause you are not the same.” As the record closes with “Sword and Saddle,” McClure’s optimism comes face-to-face with his own pragmatism. Acknowledging the distinct struggles of the world, he minces no words as he reflects on the life he could have led if he hadn’t surrendered to outside forces. But even that kind of lyrical surgery on his soul doesn’t throw him back to where he was 20 years ago. He proclaims, boldly, “Now the world, it keeps on coming, you can ride or you can try running / You can slide for a while but the miles they take their toll away.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean things are easy and perfect for McClure. In the last few years, his marriage ended, he became sober, he began to pay closer attention to politics for the first time in his life, and his longtime collaborator, Joe Hardy (who produced and engineered for ZZ Top), passed away. On Looking Up, his first record since 2005 without Hardy, McClure worked alongside his new partner, Chrislyn Lawrence, as they recorded in his Boohatch Studio in Ada, Oklahoma. His band — comprised of drummer Eric Hansen, bassist Ruben Salazar, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Knudsen, among others — recorded their specific tracks in other studios and cities across the South.
Looking Up could have been a record that dwelled on these difficulties, but instead, it seems as though McClure found glimpses of hope in the constant changes he’s faced over the years. This thoughtful introspection saturates the record, but it’s clearest on “Orion” as McClure turns to the night sky and the title’s constellation for some kind of divine guidance.
“The moon has a dark side, and it’s along for the long ride / If just to push the tide away and pull it right back in,” he sings. “The days just seem hectic, but this night is electric / And Orion is hiding, so I’m biding what’s left of my time.”
Whatever might be left of McClure’s time, one thing is certain: As long as Orion — and whatever else — continues to guide him, he will remain a pioneer in the landscape of Red Dirt and alternative country for decades to come.