There’s no way Lori McKenna could write the kinds of songs she does and be cool. It would be that way even if she weren’t the middle-aged mom of five kids, living with her plumber husband of nearly 30 years, in the small town of Stoughton, 17 miles outside Boston. Cool requires a haze of mystique, a staunch aversion to cliché, an aura of originality. But there’s nothing truly original about the human condition. Every variety of joy and suffering a person can experience has been undergone by innumerable others. That common stock of pleasure and pain is McKenna’s box of paints, the stuff of near cliché that she renders into vivid three-minute portraits and landscapes. At the intimate scale where she does her best work, any whiff of posturing would be fatal to the impression she’s so deft at creating, that she’s telling the listener’s own story—singing your life, your loved ones’ lives, and maybe even your worst enemy’s life, back to you.
And yet there’s a side of McKenna’s life that’s undeniably glamorous. Between school functions and softball practices, she jets to Nashville, Tennessee—or other Music Row professionals jet to her—to collaborate on songs for other performers, sometimes ones that sell millions. In the couple of decades she’s been at it seriously, McKenna has written (by her estimate) nearly 100 songs a year, often with her team partners, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose (the latter of whom is best known for her earlier work with then-teenage Taylor Swift), collectively known as the Love Junkies. They wrote the 2015 hit “Girl Crush” for Little Big Town, making headlines for the song’s risqué-for-country Sapphic overtones and winning both the Grammy for Country Song of the Year and Country Music Association award for Song of the Year. This month, they’ve got a Top 10 Country track with Carrie Underwood, the affecting belter “Cry Pretty.” On her own, McKenna created what was pretty much the dominant country song of both 2016 and 2017, “Humble and Kind,” a gently subversive plea for human decency in an indecent age, recorded by Tim McGraw. That one brought a second consecutive year of Grammy and CMA wins, and in 2017, McKenna became the first woman ever to be named the Academy of Country Music Songwriter of the Year—the more remarkable for an artist not from the South, who began on the northeastern folk circuit.
Lest you think McKenna takes that success as a license to cruise, she ends her new solo album, The Tree, with a tribute to songwriting as a craft, penned with her Love Junkie comrades, called, “Like Patsy Would”: When she’s making a song, she sings, she wants to “write it down like Hemingway/ Like it’s the last damn thing I’ll ever say/ And try to sing it like Patsy would.” (That would be Patsy Cline, of course.) And yet she says try to, well aware the goal is unrealizable. McKenna’s own voice is an effective but modest instrument, part of the reason her hits have come from other performers, despite this being her 11th studio album. Yet the degree of her ambition is also indispensable because every time she confronts the blank page again, “it’s just me and the truth.”
Not every songwriter could get away with singing about truth as if it were a solid object she’s held and turned in her hands. McKenna earns it. Yes, she has a job to do, but her business is pretty much to wreck you, as stealthily and exactingly as she can. (In fact, “Wreck You” was the title of the first cut on her previous album, 2016’s The Bird & the Rifle.) She’s out to amuse, encourage, and comfort too, but lots of songwriters do that. McKenna’s specialty is to call upon all the techniques and arcana of her craft in order to slip her fingers into your chest and lovingly but pitilessly squeeze. That may not be cool, but it’s steely.
She does this early on The Tree with a pair of songs about intergenerational care and frailty. First there is “The Fixer,” about a husband who can repair anything except his wife’s terminal illness. Then comes “People Get Old,” which is partly a portrait of McKenna’s father (who raised her and five other siblings on his own after McKenna’s mother died when she was 7) as he grows weaker in his 80s but still clings to his autonomy. But on another level, it’s about the whole cycle of life in families and struggling to appreciate each moment in the face of inevitable change and loss and decline. By the time the two tracks were over, I was basically listening to the rest of the album flattened out on the floor.
It’s worth lingering over “People Get Old” as a laboratory of songwriting technology, as a quiet proof of McKenna’s virtuosity. It’s there in her uses of slant and near rhyme as well as uneven line lengths to make the words feel like conversation instead of lyrics, without ever falling out of step with the lope of the music, as in the song’s bridge:
Daddy keeps busy in the afternoons playin’ cards by himself,
And he shouldn’t be shovelin’ that first snow, but you know he won’t take the help.
Full of pride and love, he don’t say too much, but hell, he never did,
And you still think he’s 45, and he still thinks that you’re a kid.
Even more so, it’s in the structure of how the chorus reconfigures itself whenever it cycles back around. It starts the same each time, “Houses need paint, winter brings snow.” Those images of seasons changing, of the upkeep it takes to maintain a life, signal its forward momentum. The first time, the next line is “Kids, come on in before your supper gets cold.” The second, it’s “Kids growin’ up and sneakin’ out the window.” The third and final time, it becomes “Nothin’ says ‘love’ like a band of gold” (the kids now going off and getting married themselves), followed by “Babies grow up and houses get sold.” Even after all those coats of paint, eventually everything must go—which of course reinforces each chorus’s closing line, “You live long enough, and people get old.”
However, that final chorus is also doubled in length. Before giving us the payoff, it pulls back to an even wider view, repeating the “Houses need paint” rhythm and melody but with a more searching thought: “Time is a thief, pain is a gift/ The past is the past. It is what it is.” When it finally reaches the refrain line, it’s become one notch more specific, to give the dagger a last twist: “You live long enough, and the people you love get old.” By that point, it’s no longer just a song about her dad. It’s a song about everything.
You could unpack almost every track on The Tree much the same way, to discover how McKenna wrings the poignancy and potency out of the everyday. My favorites are mostly those she wrote on her own. There are excellent collaborations with Nashville aces such as Luke Laird (known for his work with Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church, and Underwood, among many others)—for instance, on “Young and Angry Again,” one of McKenna’s many songs nostalgic for a moment when she was something closer to cool, in that heedless interval between adolescence and adulthood, on the verge of leaving behind the small town to which her future self knows she was always going to return. But McKenna has a stronger take on that theme in “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s,” a song that she’s said was inspired by reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, where she identified with the role churches played for him as backdrops to teen misadventure.
Laird also assists on “The Way Back Home,” a kind of commencement-address-style set of advice to the young that (like fellow album cut “Happy People,” previously a single for Little Big Town) seems like a somewhat less powerful return to the zone of “Humble and Kind.” Title track “The Tree” (written with Natalie Hemby and Aaron Raitiere) trips into clichés not sufficiently refreshed, with a metaphor straight out of kids’-book classic The Giving Tree. And “You Can’t Break a Woman,” the otherwise moving, Love Junkies–written tale of marital estrangement and alcoholism (a topic McKenna often turns to), falters with its full tagline: “You can’t break a woman/ Who don’t love you anymore” feels unfortunately like wishful thinking compared with a real world that includes severe domestic abuse.
So, yes, McKenna’s universalism has limits. The world she’s singing about is a one of small towns, fishing trips, churches with chain-link fences; it’s implicitly white and mainly middle-class. If your life hasn’t included a lot of backyards or driveways that smell musty after rain, or if family mostly has been harrowing and dangerous for you, some of these songs may not land. Likewise, to a listener not old enough to have been in extended relationships, or to have witnessed some children (not necessarily one’s own) growing up, or to have aging relatives to worry about, this album may seem more sentimental and less realistic than I think it is. Bibles, Jesus, and God also make not-infrequent cameos, though not in very preachy ways. In “The Way Back Home,” McKenna advises keeping a Bible by your bed, “even if you never read it.” In “St. Mary’s,” she contrasts God’s “almighty” love with the central couple’s ardor, singing, “Our love is just bones and flesh”—though the way I hear it, that kinda makes it sexier. But still, be forewarned.
Musically, The Tree is the best-sounding of the McKenna albums I know (only four or five of the 11). Some have been a bit too demurely folky, while others aimed for more radio oomph than I think flatters the plaintive understatement of her voice. The Bird & the Rifle—helmed, like The Tree, by star Nashville producer Dave Cobb, of Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson fame—had a lovely clarity but was cluttered by ornamentation. Every song seemed to stop dead for an obligatory instrumental break featuring chamberlike strings or chimes. The Tree, by contrast, reduces her ensemble down to a core band, presenting each song cleanly, with just enough texture to support it emotionally. Like McKenna’s songs, the production tells its stories straight. Her past several years of spectacular behind-the-scenes success seem to have brought new confidence to her own sound.
As one last proof of the sureness of her touch, take “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone,” a mostly fingerpicked acoustic song about the conflict between domestic life and being a touring musician, but one that could speak for anyone who needs to travel for work and tries desperately to ensure their family feels taken care of and undisrupted. The move that elevates this two-minute track above a delicate portrayal of a commonplace situation to something that few other writers could achieve comes in the bridge. After singing, with rising anguish, “May God forgive the things I do/ That put one mile between me and you,” McKenna adds, as if out of the blue, “To thine own self be true/ To thine own self be true.” Without further comment, this sighed-out Shakespearean aside conveys that the reason the narrator is so careful about the impact of her comings and goings isn’t mere solicitude. She also really wants and needs to go. And she loves her family so much because they let her, because otherwise she might not be able to bear staying.
That one moment makes it a different song, the album’s most unexpectedly feminist statement, in a context that a more dogmatic kind of thinking might not credit. To thine own self be true—arguably a robust test for finding that cussed work-life balance and perhaps, for someone like McKenna, also the sweet spot between commerce and art. Among her hundreds of songs, some might end up as filler for superstars’ records, while others may shift the boundaries of what a Nashville hit can do. But the ones she keeps to sing herself have to be the hard stuff, the ones she could stand behind if they turned out to be “the last damn thing I’ll ever say.” For those of us who listen tearful and short of breath, with our own loves and losses passing before our eyes, let’s hope that last musical testament from Lori McKenna is far, far away.