Gracefully in the spotlight
She may be the protege of country’s music power couple with a major-label release that debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, but Lori McKenna remains true to her humble roots.
By Naila Francis
It’s unlikely that Lori McKenna will ever be seduced by fame. Since country superstar Faith Hill included three of the singer-songwriter’s tracks on her hit album “Fireflies” — which subsequently led to an appearance by both on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — the New England native has inked a deal with major music publisher Harlan Howard Songs and found herself collaborating with artists like Mandy Moore, with whom she co-wrote three songs for last year’s “Wild Hope” album.
Once content to release her albums on the indie Signature Sounds label out of Whately, Mass., McKenna last year released her major-label debut, “Unglamorous,” a catchy blend of folk, rock and country, for Warner Bros. Nashville/StyleSonic — also home to Hill’s husband Tim McGraw, who co-produced the album with longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore.
And yet McKenna, who performs Friday at the Stephen J. Buck Memorial Theater in New Hope, still lives in her hometown of Staunton, Mass., where she’s been busy raising her family of five for close to 20 years with husband Gene, a plumber for the local gas company. True, she’s made some concessions to her understated celebrity: The couple has bought a bigger house just a half mile away and taken the kids to Disney World. And McKenna, who had logged, between shuttling her kids around and driving herself to shows in the evenings, more than 150,000 miles on her 1999 Ford Windstar minivan, finally upgraded — to a Toyota Sienna.
But for the most part, she remains grounded in her reality — and the minutia of domestic life that she so deftly captures in song.
“We moved from a house that we didn’t fit in to a house that is a regular four-bedroom house where I sit in a kitchen, and the kids, they sit in a room right beside me. It’s not that big of a house. It’s still one of those houses where you can still find everybody,” she says.
Lest she find herself beguiled by the luster of the fleeting finer things, her children have a way of drawing her back to what matters the most.
“Kids have this ability, no matter what, to bring normalcy to whatever the situation is,” says McKenna, 39. “Even when you’re on the road living in a tour bus for a month and a half, the 3-year-old is still going to bring you a juice box to open. They know nothing abut what we think or about musicians or what anybody thinks about Faith Hill. They just see people like they are people.”
It’s a lesson learned well from mom.
“I’ve always had a problem with people sort of at any level who think that, if they’re so good at something, it gives them leverage to not be as nice of a human being as they should be,” says McKenna. “We’re all just regular people. We’re always who we are before what we do. If I had one kid or was pregnant with my first, I would always consider myself a wife and a mom or mom-to-be before I was a songwriter.”
Yet it is her songwriting that catapulted the one-time housewife to where she is now, though when she began writing songs at 13 — many of which helped her cope with the loss of her mother, who died when she was 6 — it was an exercise begun for herself. Married at 19, McKenna never imagined a career in music.
“The thing that held me back the longest, it wasn’t the writing, it was just the singing part of it,” she says. “I didn’t really have any confidence in my voice and I was really shy about singing in front of people. It took me a long time to get the courage to do it.
“In order to get me to open mics, it was basically my family and some of my friends who talked me into it and dared me to try. And then from there, it was a steeper hill than I expected, but I just kept going and never stopped.”
She independently released four albums, including “Paper Wings & A Halo” and “Bittertown” — which Warner Bros. re-issued to critical acclaim after buying out her record deal with Signature Sounds — before a meeting with alt-country artist Mary Gauthier at one of those open mic nights proved fortuitous.
It was Gauthier, now a friend, who passed some of McKenna’s songs onto her own publisher, who then sent them to Hill. The singer requested to hear everything McKenna had ever written, with the title track to “Fireflies” and her hit “Stealing Kisses” among those that made it onto her 2005 recording.
Even then, it was the type of unvarnished honesty and vivid attention to detail that McKenna displays on “Unglamorous” that anchored her songs. “No diamonds in our bathtub rings/peanut butter on everything,” she shares on the album’s title track, but underneath that no-fuss, often-chaotic home life she paints, a sweet contentment lingers. And when she sings of married life, with the absence of surprise that comes from knowing someone so long, the inevitable fights and the quiet gratitude that stems from having a witness to one’s life, the bittersweet emotion never dulls the fact that these are indeed humble paeans through which she counts her blessings.
“I write a lot of sad songs. I’m really drawn to that. Other people’s songs that are sad, I’ve always been drawn to them; it’s what hits me the hardest,” says McKenna, who also penned poignant snapshots of a high school outsider who becomes the town bum and relationships worn thin by alcoholism and infidelity, as well as a tearjerker about her mom, for the disc. “I’m a really happy person and have many blessings. If I didn’t have this career, it would be really easy to neglect that. My songs remind me about how lucky I am.”
She is lucky, too, to have escaped the pressure that many artists face for commercial success, which has also allowed her to retain the candor for which she’s known.
“I sort of remember almost being a 13-year-old and being careful what you said. Over the years, I just sort of lost that editing piece that stays with most people,” says McKenna. “You know, you have 31/2 minutes to sort of say what you have to say in a song and you can’t really beat around the bush. Usually, the only way to say it is honestly. And if it’s a song about myself, it’s easy to figure it out. If it’s a song about somebody else, then I try to honestly say what I think that person will feel. If there’s something in a song that sort of rubs somebody, like, ‘Wow, I’m surprised she said that,’ then I think that’s really cool.
“You know sometimes you’re writing a song and you come up with a line but then you think, ‘Nobody would ever sing that on the radio.’ The last thing you ever want to do is go into a studio and try to make something you think radio is going to like because that sells records.
“This record’s definitely glossier than any record I’ve made, but to me, that’s a normal progression. Warner Bros. let me go in and cut 14 songs before they listened and no one was at the studio checking on me to make sure I wasn’t screwing up. They put a lot of faith in my music and Byron and Tim put a lot of faith in what I was doing. It sounds like a Lori McKenna record and if you didn’t turn around and look and see that Tim McGraw produced it, you probably never would have guessed it.”
– The Intelligencer