Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, McKinley first began singing at age eight in the choir at his family's Baptist church. Growing up, he imbibed his Kentucky-born father's LPs, listening to artists like Hank Williams and George Jones, as well as Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, and Van Morrison. By his teens, he was playing guitar and singing in punk bands. However, in his twenties he began writing his own songs, gravitating toward rootsy country and soul sounds, mixing it with his varied rock influences. A troubled period involving drugs waylaid his career and found him moving away from music. For several years, he drove a truck delivering tuxedos between Cincinnati and Detroit. He eventually returned to songwriting and in 2014 released his debut album, Arlo McKinley & the Lonesome Sound. Hitting the road, he gained wider attention touring alongside roots luminaries like Tyler Childers, John Moreland, Jason Isbell, and Justin Townes Earle. In March 2020, he became the final artist signed by legendary singer/songwriter John Prine's Oh Boy Records label just before Prine's death that April. In August 2020, McKinley released his sophomore album and Oh Boy debut, Die Midwestern, recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Studio with Grammy-winning producer Matt Ross-Spang. 2022 saw the release of McKinley's third long-player, the inward-looking This Mess We're In.