Lori McKenna’s Love Songs For Her Family And Her Past
For a few months when she was 12, Lori McKenna thought she wanted to be a novelist. She wrote page after page, but her older brothers told her they didn’t get it and that there was too much dialogue and not enough story. But those brothers were songwriters already, and Lori realized (younger than most folks have an idea what they want to be) her love of words might be better suited to filling up four minutes than 400 pages.
It was a good call. Lori McKenna is now one of the more successful songwriters in the music business, with three Grammy Awards and a bunch of accolades from and hits in the country music industry. Yet unlike just about every other writer working with the Music Row song machine, McKenna has also built a widely admired career as a recording singer-songwriter with eleven excellent solo albums.
McKenna’s also famous as the hit Nashville songwriter who never moved to Nashville but who stayed in her hometown of Stoughton, MA, outside of Boston, where she’s lived with husband Gene and raised five kids (a couple of whom are songwriters themselves). As a power mom who never wanted her writing and touring career to distract her attention from her family, she’s made a unique life, while her music’s been a balm on both sides of the country/Americana divide. Some of that life story inspired the title track on her newest, 1988, a reference to the year she got married at age 19 to a man she’d known since third grade.
“It's really hard to write love songs when you've been married for so long,” McKenna says in Episode 261 of The String. “But this one I really wanted to be, you know, for all of them.” It’s a song that zooms deftly between the micro and macro, from the struggling young couple with “one on the hip and one on the way” (a nice allusion to Loretta Lynn) to the satisfaction of looking back on the writer’s early ventures “half scared to death, half stupid brave.”
“I just wanted to sort of thank them all for just sticking by me,” she says. “And the more I thought of it, I think I was also thanking my younger self for sticking my neck out. It would have been a lot safer to just keep writing songs as I had been since I was little - writing them for myself.”
We talk about those pivotal times, when her sister-in-law (family again) “dragged her to an open mic.” She sang, and the guy who ran the event followed her outside and told her she should come back. And as she did and found joy in connecting with an audience through songs that were sophisticated but relatable, a more serious pursuit took shape. She got the attention of the prestige Boston record label Signature Sounds and began releasing albums with them in 2000. With her third title, Bittertown, things really accelerated.
Songwriter Mary Gauthier, who’d been a few years and a few steps ahead of McKenna in the Boston folk scene, gave Bittertown to her publisher in Nashville, and thus did it makes it way to star Faith Hill. The artist squeezed four of Lori’s songs onto her 2005 album Fireflies and then went further to invite the songwriter on tour with her and husband Tim McGraw. They’re all still very close. McKenna had never written with other writers, but she found a warm community in Nashville and worked happily and closely with some of the town’s more intelligent and nuanced creators, including Mark D. Sanders, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose.
With Lindsey and Rose, she wrote “Girl Crush” which stirred up the industry and won CMA Song of the Year and the Grammy Award for Best Country Song when it was cut by Little Big Town. Tim McGraw took her song “Humble and Kind” to the top, winning another Grammy and even more country awards. But it’s been her own albums and comfortably lovely performances that have endeared McKenna to the Americana scene, where she was nominated as Artist of the Year in 2017. Her relationship with Dave Cobb has been especially fruitful, producing The Bird And The Rifle, The Tree, The Balladeer, and now 1988.
“The first time I met him, I went to his house for a meeting before we decided to make The Bird And The Rifle together. And as soon as I met him, I was like, this guy's just like one of my brothers,” McKenna says. “He doesn't look like any of my brothers or act like any of my brothers, but I felt like I knew him like family. So I trust him.”
They don’t over-think or analyze much she tells me, but she did mention that with 1988, her goal was to up the energy level and tap some of the sound of rock radio in the 90s. “I’m such a ballad writer,” she says. “The way I play guitar and the way that songs land in my head, it's almost always a ballad. And I want this to move a little more.”
The opening “The Old Woman In Me” doesn’t exactly rock out, but it’s a mid-tempo beauty that seeks truths in an imagined dialogue with her older self. “Killing Me” hits harder as a song about a relationship with somebody who can’t or won’t look at silver linings and glasses half full. It’s a bit of a precursor to the later song “Wonder Drug,” one of the hardest hitting songs of recent years about living with and loving an addict. (And please note, not all of 1988’s songs are about McKenna’s family.) On the glowing side is “Happy Children,” a beautiful song of values which Lori actually co-wrote with her son Chris. And the final song “The Tunnel” is a very special set of childhood memories and layered metaphors that put me in mind of Jason Isbell’s masterpiece “Dreamsicle.”
McKenna has recently released a new acoustic performance on video of “Town In Your Heart” from the album, sung with Hillary Lindsey in Nashville’s Studio A.