Lori McKenna is a mother of five from Stoughton, Mass. (pop. 27,000), about 20 miles outside Boston. There, she lives quietly—well, as quietly as a house with five children can get—with her husband of 18 years, Gene, a plumber for the local gas company. For years she drove her kids to school in a 1999 Ford Windstar minivan with 150,000 miles on it.
i McKenna is also an acclaimed singer-songwriter who was thrust into the limelight last year when superstar Faith Hill included three of McKenna’s songs on her Number One album Fireflies, including Hill’s poignant single “Stealing Kisses.” Hill (herself a wife and mother of three) heard in McKenna’s work what a steadily growing audience has been hearing since her 1998 debut, Paper Wings & Halo: an intimate understanding and honest expression of the realities of domestic life.
Now many more will have the opportunity to discover what Hill did early on as McKenna prepares to release a new album next spring. The title hasn’t been decided, but the batch of 11 songs — produced by Hill’s husband, country star Tim McGraw and the couple’s longtime producer Byron Gallimore — prove once again that this singer-songwriter stay-at-home mom is the real deal; an authentic artist whose “fearless musical snapshots lay bare the realities of small-town life while clinging to the hope of better days,” as one Nashville reviewer put it.
“I don’t remember ever being impacted by a songwriter the way I was with her," Hill says. "Her writing is masterful, with a pureness that is completely unaffected. The songs are such a great combination of depth and realness … there's just this indescribable collision of innocence and honesty in her writing.”
“I’m just a housewife from Stoughton who likes to write songs,” McKenna says. “That this absolutely gorgeous woman, who has a completely different life from mine, got it the first time she heard it is amazing to me. That we are both connected to the songs is a gift — that I was able to be truthful and honest and write something down that someone like her could identify with.”
McKenna’s new songs traverse familiar domestic territory. “Unglamorous” — co-written with Nashville songwriter Liz Rose (Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack) — lovingly depicts the family home’s faded curtains, threadbare rugs, and crowded dinners at the kitchen table as “No frills, no fuss / Perfectly us, unglamorous.” McKenna wrote “I Know You” about her husband Gene, whom she married at 19. “We’ve been together so long, I’ve known him since third grade.” “Confetti,” co-written with Fred Wilhelm, “is about fading love, how you have to work to keep it going,” she says.
Then there’s the bittersweet, positively tear-jerking “Leaving This Life,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, about McKenna’s mother, who died when McKenna was 6. “I used to have this recurring dream for years that I was in the driveway and my mother would pull up in her station wagon and start unloading groceries,” she recalls. “In the dream, I’d just be sitting on my bike, speechless, because she was home. She would smile at me and say ‘Hi’ and walk in the house, and I couldn’t even speak. She was 40 when she died and I don’t remember her at all. The song is about wishing you knew those simple little things about that person, what their voice sounds like, how they walk, what they look like driving a car.”
McKenna recorded the album over a series of two- and three-day sessions in Nashville last April with McGraw and Gallimore, who brought in their team of seasoned studio musicians to interpret the tracks and bring a mesmerizing blend of rock, folk, and country textures to the songs. “Byron and Tim were so amazing about keeping my songs and keeping them about my story, but bringing in all these incredible players, who just blew me away,” McKenna says. “It was easily the best musical experience I’ve ever had in the studio to hear my songs come out of these great players.”
McKenna’s new album is actually her fifth, after the independently released Paper Wings & Halo (1998), Pieces of Me (2001), The Kitchen Tapes (2003), and Bittertown (2004). The latter was re-released by Warner Bros. Records after she signed with the label in 2005. Bittertown features the original renditions of two songs Hill covered on Fireflies (“If You Ask” and “Stealing Kisses”), along with “Bible Song,” which country star Sara Evans recorded for her album Real Fine Place. Bittertown paints a detailed picture of the oft-hidden complexities of day-to-day life in a small town. “One reviewer said it was about the complications of an uncomplicated life, which I thought was really perfect,” McKenna says.
She’s quick to point out that her songs’ tangibly intimate scenarios are not necessarily a journal of her own home life. Rather, they’re the collision point of autobiography, keen observation, and a vivid imagination. “That’s how my brain works,” she says. “I can take a little piece of something that I heard somewhere and turn it into a song written in the first person.”
McKenna’s unique talent for getting such honest emotion on paper may be the result of her unique career path. “I started writing songs when I was about 13, but I never imagined I would actually leave my house with them,” she recalls. “They were always written for me.” McKenna learned to compose without self-consciousness, to leave in all the painful details that most writers would edit out before facing an audience. Why not? No one would hear the songs anyway.
And that’s how things remained—until McKenna reached age 27, at which point she had already married and had three children. “My kids put everything in line for me,” she says. “They, and my husband, gave me the courage to play in front of people. If the audience hated my songs, it wasn’t gonna make or break me, because I had so much here at home. If it didn’t work, I could at least share that lesson with my kids: ‘I can’t be regretful, because at least I tried to pursue this.’”
McKenna began performing at open-mic nights in Boston, and the enthusiastic response led to her own shows. Finding it perfectly natural to balance her full home life with a burgeoning musical career, she took care of the kids all day, played shows in the evening, and wrote songs at the kitchen table after the children’s bedtime. She drove from show to show in the same minivan in which she ferried around her kids, who now range in age in from 17 to 2.
Certainly, the young mom didn’t envision the string of events that led to her status as an in-demand songwriter among country’s top ranks. McKenna’s friend, rising alt-country singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, passed her songs along to the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard’s publishing company, who played them for Faith Hill. The superstar had just finished recording her new album — but was so taken that she promptly went back into the studio to add three McKenna tunes. She even wound up naming the CD after one of them, Pieces of Me’s “Fireflies.
McKenna, who says she is overjoyed with Hill’s renditions, appeared with Hill on The Oprah Winfrey Show last year, chatting with the host (who teared up as McKenna told her story) and performing “Fireflies” with Hill. “I was afraid I’d get up there and cry,” McKenna says of the experience. “I can’t talk and cry at the same time, but then everyone else started to cry and I was like, ‘Turn on the cry button!’”
Now it’s time for the original voice of Hill’s songs to be heard. “My priority is, I want to write great songs, timeless songs, songs that affect people,” McKenna says. “But if I have the blessing to be able to share the way I interpret my songs with people, then I want to do that, too.”
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