Lori McKenna is almost ready for her post-show interview. “But I need a few minutes,” she says in the Iron Horse Music Hall dressing room, “to help pack up the stage.”
A headliner serving as her own roadie is a far cry from just a few weeks earlier, when she toured America with country music’s first couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and experience with more than a few surreal moments.
“After the second show in Omaha, we were rolling out and the circus was rolling in,” says McKenna, and in the space next to the tour buses were a host of Barnum and Bailey’s “biggest” stars.
“10 dancing elephants, ears flapping,” she laughs. “I was standing there and one of them was kissing David, my three year old, on the face. And I thought, how did I get here?”
“Our life takes us to some crazy places,” she says. “From that point on, I felt like we had joined the circus for a month.”
The mother of five is again home in Stoughton, Massachusetts, with her McGraw-produced major label debut just hitting stores and radio stations; she’s back playing smaller venues like Iron Horse and the Somerville Theatre. But the transition is a mixed blessing.
Playing a free lunch set at Club Passim the day after the tour wrapped was harder for McKenna than facing the previous night’s sold-out Boston Garden crowd. “At the Tim/Faith shows, they’re so far away from you and there’s such a massive amount of people,” she says. “It was less nerve wracking than playing an intimate show, where you can see their eyes.”
With “Unglamorous,” McKenna’s strongest CD yet, she seems poised for greater success. Over the past three years, her nakedly honest songs have caught the attention of not only Hill and McGraw; Sarah Evans recorded “Bible Song,” and label mates the Wreckers perform “Drinking Problem” in concert.
The song is a study of alcoholism through the eyes of non-drinker. With lines like “I’ve never touched the stuff/but honey I tell you what/you can’t count all the ways it touches me,” the song will strike a chord with codependents the world over.
McKenna didn’t set out to write “The Al-Anon Song.”
She was dreading an upcoming co-writing appointment with Mark D. Sanders (“I Hope You Dance”). “He kind of made me nervous at times,” says McKenna, “because he’s this big amazing songwriter, he has all these hits.”
“I was staying at Melanie (widow of songwriting great Harlan) Howard’s house in the guest room, and Harlan was watching over us all as he always does,” she continues. “I was really nervous. I had nothing, no idea in my head to deliver to this man. I was laying there, and all of a sudden, “I’ve been thinking while you’ve been drinking/I guess thinking is the last thing on your mind,” which is just such a Harlan line, popped in my head. So the next day I showed up and told Mark, let’s write a song about drinking. He said, OK, my favorite!”
“I said I’ve got this line, and I don’t know what it means. I always credit Harlan Howard for giving it to me. It’s very country.”
Sanders also helped McKenna find the perspective she needed to complete “Leaving This Life,” one of the highlights on the new record. It’s a sad and beautiful ode to her mother, who died when Lori was seven.
“I was trying way too hard,” she says of the song. “It was about perception, the way I felt when my mom died, and the way I feel now that I have my own children and how she must have felt. It was OK, but it wasn’t making sense, I was over-thinking.”
“It’s a perfect example of a co-write gone good. Mark tapped into some things that happened when he was a child; he had some loss that he had experienced,” says McKenna. “It was like therapy.”
“Leaving This Life” isn’t the first song McKenna’s written about her mother. In many ways, the topic informs most of her work.
McKenna recalls a conversation with friend and fellow songwriter Mary Gauthier. “Mary said, ‘I don’t think you can be a great songwriter unless you’ve had a really hard childhood.’ I said, Mary, I had a great childhood, my family’s amazing.
“She said, ‘baby, your momma died!’”
McKenna laughs at the memory. “I was like, well yeah, and she said ‘that’s bad!’”
“I said, oh, OK you’re right, it probably is. That’s probably where it comes from.”
Though she’s been something of a citizen of Nashville for the past few years, she feels like the same folksinger who came through the ranks playing open microphone nights in Cambridge and Boston.
“If ‘honky tonk, donk a donk’ ever comes out of my guitar, then I’ll know. Country radio has great songs, and some of them are really bad. Any genre has that. I think it’s a line you walk,” she says. “I’m cautious of crossing over and just being a formula writer.”
“A lot of people blame Nashville,” she continues, “but they’re writing the songs because that’s what the radio wants. You know what I mean? There are amazing songs that come out of Nashville every day that no one will ever go near because they’re too amazing.”
She cites Tony Lane’s “You Came Here to Live, You Didn’t Come Here to Die” as a good example. “I heard him sing it in the round one night and I was just sobbing,” says McKenna, who was shocked to find that the song had been kicking around Nashville for 5-6 years.
“Nobody would touch it – it wouldn’t do well on radio,” she says. “Tim and Faith will do songs that nobody else would do, but it’s hard for a new artist. They have to do songs that work; those kinds of songs don’t always work.”
Faith Hill recorded three of McKenna’s songs on her last record, which led to a few fun moments on the tour when the crowd sang along to “Stealing Kisses.” “That was really cool,” she says. “I knew they were doing it because they knew Faith’s version and not mine, but they still knew the words. The first time we did it, we went back down after we were done and Faith said, ‘I never got that reaction from the crowd, they sang every word with you.’”
“And the line that they loved,” McKenna continues, “they actually would clap when they heard it, was, ‘standing in your kitchen.’ When Faith released that song, she got accused – they said people don’t get it. Well they obviously do get it, because that’s what they were singing.”
Did she ever feel a bit awe-struck, she’s asked finally, working in the presence of country music royalty?
“No, it’s so funny,” she says. “We’d watch Tim out there every night, and he’s like Elvis. He comes out and the whole place freaks out. You would never know that it’s the same guy who was playing basketball with his shirt off three hours earlier, and throwing David, my son, up in the air. It just doesn’t affect him. It’s really good to see that.”