Lori McKenna’s Favorite Year

lorimckenna_350.jpgLori McKenna’s heady year – highlighted by her major label debut, an arena tour and a 2007 Boston Music Award for “Unglamorous” – ended on a familiar note, with a four-night residency at Passim.

The Harvard Square club is one of the singer-songwriter’s favorites. “You can’t imagine anybody being big enough to not want to play that room,” she said last week.

Because McKenna lives nearby, Passim has another, perhaps more endearing, quality.

“It was great to get in the minivan and drive into Boston every night and just pick up my guitar and play,” she says.

For the first of six shows, Lori and her band (Mark Erelli, Jake Amerding) swapped favorite songs. The all-covers night is an annual tradition for McKenna, who selected a pair of tunes from Miranda Lambert’s latest album, including the tender ballad “More Like Her.”

Lambert, says McKenna, “knows – in some ways more than I do – what she wants to be about musically, and I really respect that.”

She also covered Steve Earle’s “Someday.”

“My three-year old knows all the words,” said McKenna.

During the summer whirlwind of magazine articles and talk show appearances surrounding “Unglamorous,” McKenna tried to stay above the fray. For the most part, she didn’t see herself on television; that was band director Mark Erelli’s job. “I always make him watch everything and tell me what I need to know,” she laughs.

“I was sort of forced to watch ‘Nightline’ because my manager and his wife were in my living room” when it came on. “The piece ended and I said, ‘you know, if I didn’t know me, I’d like myself.’”

In fits and starts, she’s begun work on a follow-up to “Unglamorous.”

“This year will be focused on thinking about the next record,” says McKenna. Her affiliation with producer Byron Gallimore recently led to a fruitful writing session with Jessica Harp of the Wreckers, who’s a big fan of Lori’s.

Working with Harp was easy. “We‘re almost like the same person,” says McKenna – eerily so.

She played a rough demo of the sessions for her 18-year old son. He was sure it was his mom, not Harp, playing guitar. And, says McKenna, “I had my husband listen to it … he said, is that you singing or her?”

She’s not ready to become the third Wrecker, however. “I don’t think they’ll let me,” she says. “Maybe we can be a duo called the ‘Put Them Back Togethers.’”

Winning a Boston Music Award is nothing new for McKenna. Her self-released debut, “Paper Wings and a Halo” won in 1998, and she was honored again in 2004.

But the one-time indie darling says she was “a bit overwhelmed” by this year’s BMA for Best Major Album.

“It’s really strange,” she says. “It could have been a nightmare, this idea of stepping out of the whole Boston scene, and making this record down there with people who had never heard me play live or anything.”

Instead, “it was this fun experiment, and everyone was on the same page.”

On her upcoming tour (which stops Friday in Wolfeboro and Saturday in Northampton), she’ll never be far from her Stoughton base, playing a series of mostly East Coast dates that began with last Sunday’s “Hot Stove, Cool Music” benefit at the Paradise.

For setting up an itinerary that spans 12 cities over nearly two months, says McKenna, “My agent should get an award,”

“I’ll break down if I can’t be home every four days,” explains the mother of five.

“I’m proud of the record and I want to play,” she continues. “But those things aren’t going to get you through your life.”

Lori McKenna – The Surreal and the Real

mckenna-2.jpgLori 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.”

Lori McKenna GAC Puzzler

I’m still scratching my head over last night’s twin appearance by Lori McKenna on GAC. The singer-songwriter talked at length with Suzanne Alexander about her just released “Unglamorous” on GAC Nights; bits of the interview were excerpted later for “On The Street,” which showcases new CDs.

Why am I bewildered? Well, for all the air time given to Lori, I didn’t hear a single note of her music. Oh, they showed Faith Hill’s cover of “Stealing Kisses” twice, mentioned Sara Evans’ take of “Bible Song,” and followed an interview segment with two Tim McGraw videos, including the obligatory duet by the country music super couple.

One would think that a new record merited a note or two – heck, Faith’s versions of Lori’s songs are two years old at this point. Warner Brothers is doing a great job getting Lori in the public eye, but please, let’s hear what she sounds like!

Lori McKenna – Unglamorous **Updated**

mckenna.jpgIn 2004, I attended Signature Sounds’ 10th anniversary show at the Calvin, and in addition to enjoying music from performers I knew about – Josh Ritter, Mark Erelli, Rani Arbo – I found about a few I’d somehow missed.

One was Lori McKenna, who writes devastatingly straightforward songs about life as most people know it. I checked out her then-current album, “Bittertown,” and found it packed with insight, a quality missing from most pop music these days.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one paying attention to Lori McKenna’s brilliance. In the spring of 2005, Faith Hill stopped work on her album when she heard “Bittertown.” Eventually, three McKenna songs, including the title cut, made it onto “Fireflies,” and Warner Brothers picked up “Bittertown” for distribution.

WB also began artist development work with Lori. What’s that, you say? Didn’t that disappear in the Seventies? Not in country music, it seems. On August 14, Lori McKenna will release “Unglamorous,” her proper major label debut. I’ve heard snippets, and I’ll go out on a limb to say success hasn’t spoiled her one bit.

Her label put together a QuickTime biovideo, which is on the William Morris Agency site, to help folks get a sense of this wonderfully talented artist.

A longer version is also on YouTube.

She’s on tour now with Hill and husband Tim McGraw, with two stops next week in Boston. But I’d recommend you skip the EnormoDome shows and wait for her to tour in support of the new album. She’s better at places like the Calvin and Somerville Theatre; I’ve a feeling success will force her from intimate rooms like Hooker-Dunham and Iron Horse.

**UPDATE** Wait, I’m wrong about that. Iron Horse has Lori and her band scheduled for July 20, with Mark Erelli opening. Of course, AFTER “Unglamorous” comes out, that will change.

I predict “Unglamorous” will be THE country record of 2007, a singer-songwriter masterpiece.

Watch the video and see for yourself.