Armed with a guitar and piercing lyrics, John Griffin McKay is a new musician you need to know. His voice reverberates from his hometown of Waco, Texas with pain, longing, and hope. Hailing from the same Lone Star State, David Ramirez’s fingerprints are indelibly imprinted on both McKay’s lyrics and his sounds. And just like Ramirez, McKay creates great music.
His first EP “Wilderness” is an intimate confession of his struggle to make sense of his (and in many ways our own) past. At first blush McKay draws listens in with his heavy and crisp voice. Each song seems to echo with a stinging hint of pain, but they are far from despair. They are much more complex and rich than the simple gush of self-pity.
Utilizing simple acoustic fingerpicking, layered vocals, and a full piano sound, McKay creates an ambient sound that accompanies his deeply-spiritual lyrics perfectly. The backing vocals provide a comforting sound for those who enjoy the new folk revival, while the traditional fingerpicking will keep fans of roots acoustic music happy.
The first two songs on the EP reflect on the adolescent years. “Hows a Kid” address the seldom-sung subject that resonates with everyone, the social mores of teenage sexuality. “How is a kid suppose to be a kid” he posits, when society tells guys “Its okay to chase after every girl you see,” and for girls, “It is embarrassing to have your virginity.” The third song “Take Me Back” is a recognition of the value of youth. He longs to be “that naive little kid” again, because the world he too often is the place where the “wicked man rules and the honest man fails.” Both these songs address the childhood verve choked out by technology, family discord, and the social pressure of childhood. They reflect on the roles we felt compelled to conform to and they identify the value of the youthful imagination.
The last two songs “If You Love Me” and “Wilderness” both are skillfully constructed. They begin softly yet hold the listener captive. “If You Love Me,” asks the all too common question we all wonder, “Why wont you take me away from this sorrow, where is justice, why won’t you send it?” It builds slowly with the help of a full band. McKay concludes the song with a profound and humbling hope that there is one who holds it-all the destructions- in the palm of a hand. The last song is a longing to find a true “wilderness”–one where you can actually be alone. He concludes the song and the album nicely with a phrase that encapsulates his work and his desire, “I just want to grow.”
McKay is an artist that one does not soon forget. In addition to his deep lyrics, McKay’s sincerity drips from his vocal intonation. With a soft, subtle vocal affect, he delivers each line as if it is poetic and meaningful. He draws his listeners to peer into their past and look at the lies they were told as children and examine their deepest longings eye to eye, in ways that only good music can.