“This sounds like I’m full of shit,” Lori McKenna says, adding a dose of salt to her otherwise sweet, mom-next-door demeanor, “but I’m just so happy that I get to have music as a career.” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a world in which anyone would ever doubt McKenna’s sincerity. Over a much-heralded multi-decade career that’s only now hitting its peak, the singer-songwriter has established herself as not only one of country music’s most respected songwriters – having racked up back-to-back Grammy awards for Best Country Song with Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” in 2016, followed by Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” in 2017 – but more importantly one of its most poignant storytellers. The best McKenna songs, like those that make up The Tree, her 10th studio album (due July 20th), are steeped in heavy emotion and inner turmoil. Blunt and typically literal, it’s often what the characters in a McKenna song can’t bring themselves to say that speaks the loudest.
With a chuckle, the overly humble McKenna dismisses her narrative gift as little more than compensation for her shortcomings as a singer. “It’s all I can do because I’m not that great melodically,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not going to just write something that sounds good, but you don’t know what I’m saying because I’m also not the most poetic person either.”
In country songwriting circles, there exists a mantra in that the best song not only tells a listener, say, what type of furniture is inside a house, but also what’s on the table and what the person sitting at it look likes. McKenna abides by this philosophy but admits she prefers to leave a bit more room for interpretation – she’ll show you the furniture but leave you wondering about how it got there and what drama it’s witnessed. “If I’m only going to show them the furniture I have to make sure it describes what I want it to,” she explains. “I think a lot of [songwriters] in Nashville do that. We’re maybe not going to tell you every single thing about this character but then you can make your own assumptions. Maybe you’ll see that person differently than I will but that’s OK. As long as it still moves you in some way it’s all good, right?”
Culled from songs she’d written over the past few years, The Tree promises to do exactly that. The wife and mother of five says the family-centric album (“I think of the tree as my family and the branches are everything else that comprises my world”) was largely inspired by her personal life, and more specifically, watching her dad age and her children leave for college. Across the album’s 11 songs, and with a delicate touch, McKenna explores the unwavering family ties that bind us (“The Tree”), continuing to tap into your youthful spirit (“Young and Angry Again”) and never forgetting to seize the moment (“Like Patsy Would”).
“People Get Old,” a song title McKenna claims to be “a terrible title but also just true,” is by far the most personal cut: it’s the first time McKenna has written about her father in song. Her mother, who died at age 40, has played a central role in many songs, but for the first time McKenna details the bittersweet feeling of seeing her now 83-year-old father slow down. “If I could go back in time, I would in a second / To his beat-up blue jeans and a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off,” she sings with equal-parts nostalgic reverence and weary resignation.
When asked whether she had any hesitation on getting quite so personal on this LP, McKenna pushes back: “It didn’t feel like I was revealing anything to anybody that people don’t experience themselves.”
For much of this decade, McKenna, 49, was best known as one-third of the songwriting trio the Love Junkies, alongside Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose. But in 2016, McKenna’s career took an unexpected turn when she released her ninth studio album, The Bird and the Rifle. Produced by Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton), the critically acclaimed effort was nominated for three Grammy Awards. McKenna admits it was all a bit of whirlwind, but in the next breath she says the album’s success was more a matter of several pieces in her career finally coming together – from management to fellow musicians in the studio – that contributed to its success.
But McKenna says she remains focused on improving as a writer. Because, she contends, as more singer-songwriters like her have garnered national attention, other writers are committed to getting better at their craft. “Songwriters watch each other,” says McKenna. “They keep each other up to par in a great way.”
Not that she views it as a negative. In fact, McKenna, who despite living with her husband and five children in Southeast Massachusetts travels to Nashville on an average of four times a month, believes it will only push her to pen more of the emotional, effective songs on which she’s made her career. “It’s healthy competition,” she says. “I feel like everybody has had to up their game. We really work hard. There’s no throwaway lines anymore.”