listening to Lori McKenna today…you should too
I enjoy reading mysteries. From Elmore Leonard to John Sanford, Lawrence Block to Stephen White. Robert B. Parker to Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly to Robert Crais. Notice that they all are men. For reasons never quite understood, I struggle with women writers although I recently read some Joan Didion. But when it comes to music, I’m much more equal opportunity and in fact I seem to connect with women songwriters on a different level than the guys. Maybe it’s the lack of swagger and machismo of everyday life or maybe it’s just that it taps into my feminine side (yes…I’ll not deny that it exists somewhere deep inside). But for all the women artists who occupy my music collection, it’s Lori McKenna who sings words that make me listen. Words that I understand. Words that seem honest. And I only say “seem honest” because I don’t know Lori, so I’m not sure if she’s writing about herself all the time or not. But regardless, she makes music that touches some part of my soul, and so a new release from her is a celebration. Like today.
I’ve been waiting for this new one called Lorraine. While I occasionally am pretty adept at reaching out to old music biz friends to get advance copies, I hit a blank wall and waited until this morning to download this record I now listen to. A fan since finding Bittertown tossed into a clearance bin, her story is as compelling as her music. It seems almost too fragile to share, too personal. But she tells it, so I’ll lift parts of it from her own website bio:
“Lori McKenna’s first name is actually Lorraine. Now you know. She is named after the mother she lost when she was only seven, but whose impact on Lori’s life reverberates to this day. In her sixth album, Lorraine, she considers the influence of her mother, who died at roughly the same age Lori is now, as well as her own place in relationship to her husband, family and community.”
“Lori’s unusual combination of professional and personal life, at least in the context of the modern music industry, is well-documented. She grew up in Massachusetts in a musical household. Her father was an excellent singer, and her mother played the piano. Two of her older brothers were songwriters, one of whom (Richard) she considers largely responsible for her career. He accompanied a reluctant Lori to open mic nights and gave her confidence that she was good enough. She began performing her songs in public at age 27, after she and her husband Gene already had three children. She and Gene continue to maintain a happy home in Stoughton, Massachusetts, adding two more children to their full lives. In addition to family, place has an important role in Lori’s songs.”
“She eventually became a staple of the Boston folk music scene, where she became friendly with Mary Gauthier. “We were the two old ladies in a sea of young faces,” she jokes. When Gauthier picked up and left for Nashville, she brought Lori’s music to the attention of her publisher. They got her music into the hands of Faith Hill, who fell hard for Lori’s songs. Hill recorded three of them for her album Fireflies. Lori’s way of articulating the love, pain and pathos of domestic life had a huge impact on Hill, and Hill’s very public championing of Lori’s music led other artists to Lori’s songs. Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Alison Krauss, Keith Urban and LeAnn Rimes are among the many that have recorded her songs in recent years.”
“The increased acclaim for her song craft led to a record deal with Warner Brothers, who released her 2007 album Unglamorous. Working with Tim McGraw (who co-produced the album), an appearance on Oprah and an opening slot on McGraw and Faith Hill’s Soul2Soul tour were heady experiences, and Lori is grateful for them. “The whole experience was wonderful, and there were several at Warner Brothers that worked so hard for my album,” she says, but there was always a sense that her music and their goals were not going to result in a perfect professional marriage. “Recording in Nashville, as good as the experience has been in many ways, is not exactly the safest way to guard your creative instincts.” Sales levels that would seem astronomical by the standards of the folk community that nurtured her were not enough for a subsequent regime at Warner Brothers, and they parted amicably. “One thing that did come out of that experience was a much deeper confidence in myself as an artist,” says Lori, which was one reason she decided to take the reins back in her professional life. By choice, she has no label and no manager for the first time in her career.”
Actually, she sort of does have a label. She’s released Lorraine on Signature Sounds, her longtime home before the Warner shot. I like that…I like the idea that she went back to the people she must feel comfortable with and connected to. People who get her. People who must treat her well, with respect and love. Maybe that’s a fairytale, but I would like to believe that sometimes in business there beats a heart louder than the dollars.
Here’s a line from her bio that speaks to me:
“Though she and Gene have a strong and happy marriage, they, like all couples, have their moments when they are not connecting. Lori channels the vulnerability of those moments in songs that give voice to anyone who has felt insecure even in the most committed of relationships.”
And so maybe that’s the reason I love Lori so much…she speaks and sings for all of us in loving relationships. Not the kind in the movies or in the books, but the kind that have those moments…the hard times, the tears, the mistakes, the questions, the betrayals…all of it.
There’s a lot of music in this world, so many wonderful songs, so little time. You’d think it would be easy to find, but that’s not the case. You have to work hard to find it, and find the time to to hear it. You might notice I’ve done everything here except play the music critic. Sorry…I won’t make this easy for you to categorize and file away. If Lori…with the five kids, husband and a career to manage can find the time to share incredibly moving, inspirational and personal songs…I’d offer that this would be fifty minutes you’ll not regret spending.