Keegan Mcinroe is a man of the world. Like many Americana songwriters, he counts Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits among his biggest influences. But where his peers may not venture out much further than that, Mcinroe seeks out more unfamiliar territory: His music is also informed by travels across Europe, a degree in religion and philosophy, foreign policy and existentialism. Mark Twain influenced the concept for Mcinroe’s latest album and even provided its name. There's no one else in North Texas quite like Mcinroe.
Uncouth Pilgrims is a term Mcinroe lifted from Twain’s book, The Innocents Abroad, a travel log of a trip through Europe and the Holy Land. Some of the other tourists would carve out souvenirs from venerated sights, slowly destroying them. Twain referred to this lot as “uncouth pilgrims.” Mcinroe kept these sentiments in mind as he toured Europe multiple times over the last few years.
His previous album, A Thousand Dreams, dealt with heartbreak and there was still some of that on his mind. “The uncouth pilgrim becomes not the spiritual pilgrim but the romantic pilgrim,” Mcinroe says. “We often do the same thing to people, leaving them in worse shape than when we found them.” The idea of unintentionally destroying something invaluable — like a historic relic or love — became the concept of Uncouth Pilgrims.
The album’s sound leans toward older blues and country. With straightforward, long-form poetry, there is also a huge Bob Dylan influence. After Mcinroe heard Desire he listened to Dylan every time he listened to music for years. The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty is another one of his favorite albums and it brings a folk sensibility into the mix. “It’s all roots music in a way,” Mcinroe says. “There’s always that folk influence in country. And blues influences everything.”
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But from start to finish, Uncouth Pilgrims shows that Mcinroe puts being a songwriter above all else. “I’m interested in telling stories and painting pictures,” he says. The songs are essentially travel stories that sometimes involve relationships from this lifestyle. “The uncouth pilgrim takes a little piece and keeps moving,” Mcinroe says. “Everything is temporal.”
But he isn’t necessarily referring to himself. He remembers a friend telling him what he thought after walking into a room full of beautiful women in Naples: The forest is full of many trees and thankfully I am a good lumberjack. This is how the song, “The Lumberjack Blues,” was born. “For a lot of musicians and travelers in general, the romantic experiences along the way become part of the travel,” Mcinroe says, “and in doing so I think we sometimes forget that these are other humans we are having experiences with. It can become unintentionally abusive.”
Setting out with the intention of just passing through is bound to create some misadventures and these are chronicled. The songs are about romance and the romance of travel. Uncouth Pilgrims is a sophisticated concept album filtered through experiences and musical influences. Country, folk and dirty old blues are all used to express love, fear and loathing. At first glance, it may seem like a sporadic offering of Americana. “It’s not meant to be a genre record,” Mcinroe clarifies. “It’s a sonic painting and somewhat theatrical.”
While completing the album, Keegan put out a video to a song he released years ago, “Everybody Knows (There’s a War).” The track sounds very much like a political country song, but with lyrics that address the causes and effects of blowback from foreign policy.
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After seeing a video by a Croatian band that was both violently graphic and funny, Mcinroe recruited the filmmaker to create an animated sequence that softens the blows with humor. He admits that the approach is still philosophizing with a hammer, but stresses that he is also looking for common ground by pointing out things that everyone should have a problem with.
“We’ve been conditioned to be along one line,” Mcinroe says. “You’re either on this team or that one; it’s not split into all the various ideologies, emotions and thoughts. It really hurts our ability to have an actual conversation on anything.” He likes the idea of his music being a vehicle to raise awareness, but usually leaves the song out of his live sets. “I don’t perform as a political act,” Mcinroe says. “I’m there to entertain. I don’t think it’s really in the interest or concern of the audience or myself to play something that political.”
But there have been times when he couldn’t resist doing his rendition of “Masters of War” when playing at venues near Lockheed Martin, especially if he just read about a country getting bombarded with missiles made in the USA. "I should just eat, drink and be merry," Mcinroe says. "But at the same time, conscience demands that if you have something to say, you say it. You want to open a dialogue."