As country music has expanded its boundaries over the past few years, incorporating ever more generous amounts of pop, rock and R&B hooks into the genre’s sonic sphere, songwriter Lori McKenna’s use of razor-sharp observations and refined melodies to probe humanity’s deepest emotions has often served as a musical recalibration.
And just as often, with songs such as “Humble and Kind,” or the boundary-pushing “Girl Crush,” McKenna’s efforts have been honored with awards including two Grammys, and accolades from the Country Music Association, Academy of Country Music, and MusicRow Magazine. Last year, she became the first female in the 52-year history of the Academy of Country Music Awards to win Songwriter of the Year.
McKenna continues to solidify her reputation as one of country music’s greatest songsmiths on her latest album, The Tree, out Friday (July 20) on CN Records via Thirty Tigers.
Though the singer-songwriter is known for her fine detailing of the significance found in ordinary moments, this album doesn’t rehash those themes; instead, she allows them to evolve and deepen with time.
“With writing I get into these phases. I was kind of in this family phase,” she tells MusicRow of the new project. “I’m always there anyway, but especially after writing ‘Humble and Kind,’ I’m at this point where my kids are starting to leave the house and starting to make their own paths and lives. At the same time I’m watching my dad get older and sometimes need a little help. My bandmates and a lot of my friends are in that space as well.”
McKenna encapsulates this stage with two stunning solo-penned tracks, including the devastating “The Fixer,” where a husband so adept and comfortable tending to household tasks struggles to accept he can’t cure his wife’s failing health. The equally affecting “People Get Old” was penned for her father.
“I’ve tried to write songs about him in the past, and they didn’t turn out. They would have been too mushy and he wouldn’t have liked that anyway,” she says. “After my mom died, my dad raised us himself. He’s done so much for all of us and it has been a little bit of watching him slow down, and feeling more of the things he’s been through.”
For the new album, her second on the CN Records label, McKenna reteamed with producer Dave Cobb, known for his sparse and spacious tracks with artists such as Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. McKenna and company huddled around microphones in Cobb’s studio in Nashville, performing the songs together, live.
“I learned from the last record [2016’s The Bird and the Rifle], that really is maybe the best approach for me, because I don’t really love being in the studio. Some folks as artists, they just love that process. It’s kind of foreign to me. I have such a writer brain that I’d rather write another song than sit there and record the one we have,” she says, laughing. “It’s just about coming out with the best emotional take we can find, that kind of holds the lyrics where they need to be held. Not a lot of overdubbing, no click tracks, basically the four of us playing live.”
McKenna prefers a close collaboration also with her independent publishing and management company, Creative Nation.
“Usually, there are a couple of years between albums, so I kind of know which songs I will set aside. We’ll get a Dropbox and put maybe 30 songs in there, and then we’ll all make a list of our favorites,” she says of the song selection process. “It’s so funny because it happened on the last record as well, but we end up with mostly all the same songs. I really like having them involved in the process.”
While most songwriters are told early in their careers they need to move to Nashville, McKenna has kept her roots in her hometown in Massachusetts. Though she travels often, both for writing and performing, she raises her children in the same town she grew up in. Her father lives down the street, in McKenna’s own childhood home.
The intricacies of family life emerge across the album, as when McKenna details both the tangible and intangible proofs of a mother’s love and provision on “A Mother Never Rests” (penned with Barry Dean) and “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone” (a solo write).
“I think there is a lot we experience as children and we don’t understand how our parents feel about it until we get to experience it ourselves,” she says. “My daughter just got her driver’s license. Just watching her every time she leaves the driveway, I can’t help but think, ‘Oh my gosh, my dad must have felt this way every time. I’m the youngest of six and it’s like, ‘he must have felt this way over and over again.’ Sometimes empathy isn’t enough, you have to go through something yourself to realize how they really feel. I feel like part of me is seeing it through my dad’s eyes.”
When she’s not embracing the present-day, she contemplates the freedoms and struggles that come with the transition from youth to adulthood on “Young And Angry Again,” and “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s.”
Elsewhere, McKenna re-envisions “Happy People,” a song recorded and released by Little Big Town last year, as a jangly, acoustic folk-rock collection of succinct guidelines for making the most of every day.
But once she penned “The Tree” with Natalie Hemby and Aaron Raitiere, McKenna knew the album had found its roots—and an appropriate title.
“Natalie grew up in Nashville and then she moved to LA and then she came back. It took her leaving Nashville to realize how much she loved it. And my story is I never left, but I travel. We all have different roads we took, but we came together in that song. That’s why the lyric is there about I tried leaving and bein’ something that I was never meant to be. The three of us are all tied to that song in our own ways and that’s always the greatest co-write, bringing yourselves into a song.”
As confident as McKenna is with her songwriting craft, her albums have seen her come into her own as a vocalist, capable of conveying the most intimate lyrics with a soothing, conversational quality. She recently co-wrote and recorded “They Need Each Other” with Brandon Rhyder for his album, and collaborated with fellow Massachusetts native Sean McConnell on “Nothing On You.” Not that McKenna would necessarily call herself a singer.
“When someone asks me, I’m like ‘What? You want me to do it?’, especially in Nashville because there are so many incredible singers. Sometimes, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Maybe if I think of myself as a singer, maybe I’ll sing better,’” she says with a chuckle. “I really think of myself as a songwriter who has to interpret these songs. When someone like Sean, who has one of the best voices in the world, says let’s sing this together, it’s a joy for me and honestly I get very nervous. It’s kind of out of my element. I know the songs I’m going to be asked to sing on are usually sad songs,” she adds. “I think that’s where my voice lands and that’s fine. But if I’ve written the song, it’s very special because it’s like taking it out into the world.”
The Tree Track Listing:
1. A Mother Never Rests (Lori McKenna, Barry Dean)
2. The Fixer (Lori McKenna)
3. People Get Old (Lori McKenna)
4. Young and Angry Again (Lori McKenna, Barry Dean, Luke Laird)
5. The Tree (Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, Aaron Raitiere)
6. You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone (Lori McKenna)
7. Happy People (Lori McKenna, Hailey Whitters)
8. You Can’t Break A Woman (Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose)
9. The Lot Behind St. Mary’s (Lori McKenna)
10. The Way Back Home (Lori McKenna, Luke Laird)
11. Like Patsy Would (Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose)
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