By Steven Dickey Arnold
I can’t say enough good things about former Tylerite (REL Class of 1968) Robert McKay’s premiere album, Brand New Old School. It’s cerebral and toe tappin’ at the same time. It may cause actual dancing to break out in those folks genetically disposed to such shenanigans. That means, if you begin listening to Brand New Old School, be prepared to listen over and over and over again.
The first time I experienced McKay’s montage of 13 songs, it was like he had personally opened my heart, copied my private thoughts and emotions and set them to music. How’d he do that? I asked myself. Or as the old East Texas punchline goes,”How do he know?”
Upon further reflection I realized that McKay and I had grown up experiencing similar activities and life-shaping events. We were in the right place at the same time. From school assemblies at Hogg Jr. High, where we received emotion-filled word of JFK’s assassination, to the musical inspiration of “Great Balls of Fire” performed on a rickety old upright piano, Jerry Lee Lewis style, by a young and energetic RobinHood Brians. Our formative years in the same community provided similar but unique paths. We were like opposite faces of the same coin as we each tried our first attempts at school politics, football and music.
Prominent Tyler residents Judge Connally and Glee McKay raised son Robert and two daughters, Elaine McKay Harman of Dallas, TX and Diane McKay Gilliam of Charlottesville,VA. A founding member of Green Acres Baptist Church, during his illustrious judicial career, Judge McKay served as district attorney for Smith, Wood and Upshur counties, bankruptcy judge, district judge for the 114th Judicial District, and associate justice on the 12th Court of Appeals in Tyler until his retirement from the court in 1985.
Robert McKay began his musical career as a violin student. At 13, he transitioned to guitar on a $10 used acoustic instrument. During a recent interview, McKay recalled his earliest involvement in the robust 60’s music scene in Tyler as he played in several local groups including the group known as simply: “Us,” as a counterpoint to “Them,” Van Morrison’s first band best known for it’s hit song “Gloria.” Fellow “Us” band members included Steve Breedlove, vocalist (Anglican Bishop in Chapel Hill, NC), Jimmy Robertson, guitar (Tyler oil and gas attorney), Craig Chesley, drums (Tyler Realtor), Bill Johnson, guitar (Tyler oil and gas Landman) and Jerry McDuffie, bass (parts unknown). Our paths crossed again when he came to jam sessions in my living room, and we played sock hops at the Robert E. Lee cafeteria after home football games.
During the interview, McKay said he was influenced by local Tyler standouts: Mouse and the Traps, Holly & the Hobos, The Revolvers (I played keyboard) and The Sensors, including Bugs Henderson, David Stanley and Legendary drummer Levi Garrett. Likewise, he remembers seeing BJ Thomas live in Tyler. McKay spoke fondly of participating in the battle of the bands and talent shows produced by the Tyler Parks Department in the summers of ‘63, ‘64 & ‘65 at Bergfeld Park with perennial host/emcee, Rodney Kamel.
McKay says the fundamentals of modern music began in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s. He was influenced by the British invasion including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Dave Clark Five. American influences were Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers. He expressed a special respect for fellow Texan Buddy Holly as a songwriter, musician and vocalist. Motown broke into his music collection with Aretha Franklin, and then along came the Eagles to become one of his all-time favorites. He said, “I take my hat off to The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, Arlo Guthrie and the fabulous Do Wop group Sha Na Na,” who he admires for continuing to tour with most band members in their 70’s. McKay admits to the Woodstock Music Festival having a special place in his musical compendium.
He also loves what he calls “church music.”
“Music is a gift from God. And is a wonderful expression of people’s feelings.” He said, “Brand New Old School is a Christian album, not just a country album.” “That’s just the way the songs came out. It had to be that way.”
McKay says he writes in fits and starts. He had two songs finished when he initially met with Studio M Co-owner and musician extraordinaire Michael Morales. He was told by Morales that he needed at least ten songs to cut an album, so he went back to work producing eight additional songs in one year.
McKay says his songwriting idols are Paul Simon, Lionel Ritchie, Carol King, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks and James Taylor, with a special shoutout to Chris Stapleton for his song, “Whiskey & You.” He’s been heavily influenced by Bill Gaither’s “God on the Mountain” and “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” McKay thinks the “praise guys” like Casting Crowns are some of the best songwriters around today.
Writing his unique style on guitar, McKay says he’s self-taught and learned to play by jamming with other musicians. He currently plays a Takamine guitar. He says he listened predominantly to 60’s and 70’s music while writing Brand New Old School.
Working as an attorney, living and raising children in Victoria, Texas, a small town of approximately 63,000 mostly conservative folks just inland from the Texas Gulf coastal town of Port Lavaca, McKay and his wife Bonnie, who recently celebrated 40 years of wedded bliss, have seen their family grow from their three children, son Connally McKay and wife Sarah (Austin, TX.), daughter Sarah Weatherly and husband Austin (Waco, TX) and daughter Caroline Green and husband Zane (Corpus Christi, TX), to include eight grandchildren from 4 to 11 years old. All eight of which you can hear singing sweetly together as The Sunshine Family Singers on “You Are My Sunshine.”
The anchor song of the album, “Come to the Salvation Army,” was inspired by McKay’s personal work at the Salvation Army in Victoria. He says the Salvation Army is colorblind and during his six years volunteering at the Victoria Corps, he watched people come alive spiritually. He wrote about what he saw happening in those people’s lives with lyrics such as ”Lay your weary head down,” “Let your troubles go” and “Come and take His (Jesus’) hand.”
Another song, “You and Jesus,” is autobiographical. McKay unknowingly wrote this with a Ska beat and was surprised when his producer and master of the digitally equipped Studio M, Michael Morales revealed to McKay the evolution of Ska music to reggae. In the studio, the song’s Ska heritage was further enhanced by the addition of horns and a special walk-down emphasizing the Ska rhythm.
McKay also took a cue from Stephen Stills when Morales and he introduced a mandolin late in the arrangement of “Would That Love,” just as Still’s had done with a banjo years previously on his classic song “Bluebird.” These uncommon details marked the writing, arranging and production style of Morales and McKay. Morales plays mandolin and powerful rock guitar riffs on many of the songs in this smoothly blended but dynamic work of love and art.
Another major contributor to the unique style, variety and balance of this album was McKay’s wife Bonnie. McKay said, “She had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do her first recording session. But she took to it like a duck on a June bug.” Also praising her for her excellent harmonies McKay said, “She was later asking to go back every day. She couldn’t wait to get back in the studio.”
McKay said “As a songwriter, you write a song that you think is good, THEN you get down to the real work.” He said he had tremendous support in San Antonio. “Studio M has state of the art equipment and people who know how to use it.”
Robert McKay considers his musical style a sort of folk rock. It is my personal opinion that he has blazed a new trail in the evolution of American music. I predict that in future years this album will be considered the pivotal point in the beginning of a new and popular genre which I call “Homestyle Rock ’n Roll.” Upbeat and personal, with intelligent lyrics, awesome music and the legs to become classic songs to generations of Christians and non-Christians alike.
McKay said, with a catch in his throat, “Christians need to keep professing their faith boldly in order to counter a world in turmoil and evil deeds by dark forces.”
McKay has captured the moments and emotions many of us are experiencing in an all-you-can-eat buffet of tasty musical styles and flavors. Whether you like the fresh appetizers, (You and Jesus and Lift You Up), the healthy artery-clearing salad course (It’ll All Come Back to You), the palate cleanser (My Ego and Me), the hearty farm-to-table organic veggies (In Your Soul and Hidin’ Out In Texas), the hot, yeasty rolls with locally produced honey butter (Don’t Let This Grey Hair Fool Ya’) or the meat and taters with savory potlicker (Come To The Salvation Army and One More Conversation), it’s all Homestyle Rock ‘n Roll prepared in a loving way by a loving cook.
Still hungry for more? You’ll enjoy sippin’ on a mug of air-roasted organic joe while relaxing (Would That Love) with just the right size helping of dessert (You Are My Sunshine) topping off the feast. What I’m talkin’ bout here is genuine, homestyle, soul nurturing, good time music with an exponentially uplifting effect worthy of bingeing by the whole family. We all needed this as an antidote to the negative media, extreme films, shark jumping television programs and trash-talking comedians on our 4K flat screen televisions and high resolution iPhone screens.
Bravo, Robert McKay! Ya done good!!!
Brand New Old School is available almost everywhere that streams, downloads or sells music on the internet these days including iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play and Pandora. CD’s may be purchased for a flat $15.00 which includes taxes and shipping, from your friends here at TexasDabbler.com. In addition to selling CDs, our Texas Music Webpage has great photos of Robert, Bonnie and the Sunshine Family Singers, 30 sec. samples of all 13 album tracks, downloadable lyrics (coming soon) and lists recording credits indicating the major contributions of Bonnie McKay, Michael Morales, Ron Morales, Gilbert Covarrubias, Laith Fisk and of course The Sunshine Family Singers.
You can take it, but I don’t recommend you leave it, as this may be the start of something really significant for Robert McKay and his rapidly growing fan club. Earth to Victoria, Texas: Please send us more of Robert McKay’s Homestyle Rock ‘n Roll!!!
It was my personal pleasure to write this review and talent background article on Robert McKay and his family. We have many things common and I look forward to whatever is yet to to come for each one of us. No matter what the future holds however, I would love to hear Robert McKay’s musical version of it.
Steven Dickey Arnold