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 – 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.