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Country Music's Most Unassuming Genius

book cover

Ultimately, it was due to the country smash "Girl Crush" that I drove to the Boston area on October 26 to interview Lori McKenna in her natural habitat, the big unluxurious cul-de-sac house in her native Stoughton that the 47-year-old artist shares with her plumber husband Gene and four of their five children. A McKenna idea she tailored with her Nashville songwriting posse the Love Junkies, "Girl Crush" is all about Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild obsessing on the gal who landed the guy it's actually written to. But predictably, its "I wanna taste her lips 'cause they taste like you" kicked up lesbianism charges--which not so predictably backfired, so that in the end "Girl Crush" was voted the Country Music Association's 2015 Song of the Year. Thus it powered McKenna's 2016 The Bird & the Rifle, her first album to be anything like promoted since Warner sprung for 2007's Unglamorous, and in its wake I caught up with and fell for 2013's Massachusetts, 2011's Lorraine, and 2004's Bittertown. This was a major artist so unpretentious she could be missed altogether, an artist whose plainness of language served her eloquence of spirit with a grace that said such nice things about democracy's upside. I wanted to sing her praises and write her story.

So on the way up, I did some due diligence on her early catalog, and thus it transpired that my first question concerned a song on her first album, 1998's Paper Wings and Halo. Sung over an acoustic power strum in the loud, glottal half-drawl of an insecure folkie drowning out bar chatter, "Don't Tell Her" begins: "Don't tell her that I drink tea and not coffee/I'd prefer if you didn't talk at all about me/Even in a brief casual chat/Don't tell her how I loved your smile or things like that." Easily the most unassuming genius I've ever met, McKenna was abashed to inform me that she hadn't listened to it in years, and pleased when I told her it was a triumph even if she hadn't figured out the singing part when she cut it. Way back when, she was already encapsulating a credible situation new to popular song: Shy, proud young woman safeguards her privacy while forlornly sneaking in the occasional "If you can forgive me for my faults/Maybe it can work out after all." Way back when, her command of the commonplace had a deftness worthy of the artist who would later nail the line "I wish I was a better person"--"things like that," exactly.

But because I'd come to care deeply about Lori McKenna, the biographical fallacy intruded, and I wondered where the song came from. So over coffee-not-tea at her windowside dining room table, I asked whether she and Gene had suffered some early breach. Basically the answer was nope. "He was a big kid, and nice," she once told another interviewer, and this was when they were in third grade. "He was one of the nicest, the protector kid"--a typically apt turn of phrase that has her stamp on it. They married at nineteen, three kids and nearly a decade before Paper Wings and Halo. Not that the marriage was all happily-ever-after--Gene worked major hours at his union job with Consolidated Gas as well as spending six months making the fixer-upper they'd bought habitable, and the biographical fallacy suggests that maybe sometimes he withdrew and/or drank. But these days, "Our biggest problem is my job."

So with her two youngest still in school, McKenna doesn't "tour smart"--that is, minimize overhead on a run of closely spaced venues over several weeks. Instead she flies out of Boston, does two gigs, and gets back Monday morning, or puts in a few days in Nashville with Love Junkies Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, who as it happens are two of the biggest female songwriters in country music (Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum, you name it). This discipline runs deep. Little Lori was the six-year-old youngest of six in the Giroux family when her own mother died at forty, and she never forgets it. In addition to several Beatles posters--two "All you need is love"s and one "The love you take is equal to the love you make"--her household décor features a mirror bearing the telling legend "Mirror mirror on the wall/I am my mother after all." So she urges her kids to stick around: "I tell them, 'Stay here as long as you can handle it and save money.' " Four still live at home, with the oldest around a lot too; someone's girlfriend was driving off as I arrived at 10 a.m. and the twelve-year-old was sharing the TV room with the twenty-four-year-old when I left. "I cook if I'm home," McKenna went on. "I cook my things that are easy to make, like this soup that I make all the time." Some songwriters she knows light a cigarette when they're stuck. Lori McKenna vacuums. At concerts she introduces the title song of The Bird & the Rifle by describing how it came to her while she was folding laundry.

The Girouxs were musical--a grandfather was a lounge singer, several siblings wrote songs, the one who's a guitar whiz still does. So at fourteen Lori began writing songs herself, her rough models the James-and-Joni folkies her family was into. Gene always knew that songwriting mattered to her. And being Gene, he was nicer about it than the husband in "The Bird & the Rifle," who "loves the bird when she's singing" but is "afraid if she flies/She'll never come home again." So when in early '96 Lori drove an hour with various Girouxs to an open mic in Westborough, he minded the kids. Soon his wife stopped oversinging, coloring her declarative intensity with a conversational vibrato as songs as well-turned as "Don't Tell Her" kept on coming. Pushing thirty, she'd secured a job she could pay some bills with on the far-flung Massachusetts folk circuit.

After all, who there was better? Veteran Chris Smither, back then. And arguably the darker, bluesier Mary Gauthier, who soon emigrated like so many folkies to Nashville, the sole remaining market for the straightforward songs folkies favor. As it happened, a 2003 Nashville gig had alerted McKenna to country radio's appetite for her kind of domestic themes. When Gauthier offered to hook her up with publisher Melanie Howard, Lori was grateful albeit soon busy being pregnant again. Only then, a few months later, she learned that Faith Hill had recorded four McKenna songs for her next album. She had to sign a one-sided four-year contract with Howard, but so what? "It didn't even matter what it said. They owned all the publishing, but everybody does that at the beginning. I probably would have given her a car if I had one."

In fact, Hill's Fireflies went double platinum and Lori and Gene got the non-fixer-upper we were sitting in out of the deal. It was 2005, the tail end of the record biz's sales bonanza, and fat paydays were disappearing fast. But though the bigged-up Warner album Hill's husband Tim McGraw produced for her got lost, McKenna was in a different place--as her stock rose on her home circuit, she also joined a Nashville songwriting community where her common touch and interpersonal details were gold. In addition to song placements, her break generated Lorraine as well as Massachusetts and Numbered Doors, albums that target only her ardent fan base and artists in search of material. All mix cowrites with songs solely by McKenna, which I prefer with many exceptions--prolific pro Barry Dean, for instance, helped finish Lorraine's glorious "Still Down Here," which describes heaven in terms of "strawberry cake," a Jesus who's "taller than you thought," and we earthlings in "the shadow land": "Here where we must learn to live/With what we live without."

These recordings document the fruition of McKenna's imperfect vocal style. More physically gifted singers--Sara Evans, Alison Krauss, Keith Urban, Brandy Clark, Tim McGraw himself--have recorded McKenna's songs, and that's the idea. But her plainer vocal approach is better suited to the lyrical plainstyle she's made her own, and in her modest way she knows it. "My deficiencies formed my style more than anything I was good at. If I could sing like Carrie Underwood I'd totally write different. I was lucky in that regard."

I've caught two McKenna shows, at Manhattan's City Winery and a month later and a bunch better at Northampton's folk-circuit Iron Horse. McKenna is a compact woman with long brown hair who doesn't look nearly forty-seven. Although she's never been one for funny songs, onstage she told housewife jokes on herself that mocked her shopping habits (Nordstrom Rack) and ignorance of football ("just clap when all the other parents clap"). In Northampton, where the crowd knew her when she only had three kids, a story about replacing miniskirts with rompers got detailed enough to require the word "vagina," and the place cracked up. There was more catalog material in Northampton too, and a shoutout to Gene's gas company brothers. But both places she was promoting The Bird & the Rifle and topping it off with "Girl Crush," which she's never recorded.

Savvily produced by alt-country sachem Dave Cobb, who McKenna reports prefers feel to perfection just like her, The Bird & the Rifle has been positively but sparingly reviewed, gaining little traction with the Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson bros who've stoked Cobb's rep. With Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and for that matter Karen Fairchild straight country's quality brands, my theory is that the problem is McKenna's specialty in marriage songs, which reviewer bros find icky when positive and scary when they hit bone. On this album they run five-to-three scary, and although not one of the five is nearly as bitter as "You ain't worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name," the killer line she unleashed on Massachusetts's "Salt," some might well flinch at the killer refrain of "Old Men Young Women": "You want the lights off/He wants the lights on/So you can pretend/And he can hold on, hold on." The three positives are modest, credible, and different. The only one that whispers Gene is the fond remembrance "We Were Cool," which has them listening to Nirvana on the car cassette player.

And then there's one that fits neither category, although it is to her kids and positive as can be. An instant earworm that McGraw plastered all over country radio by last February, "Humble and Kind" could prove McKenna's "Hallelujah" should we somehow end up with the nominally just society we now crave so acutely--a humanist anthem that counsels not just the suddenly endangered humility and kindness, but saying please and thank you and cooling off with a root beer popsicle. Just after I interviewed McKenna and just before electoral Kristallnacht, it was named the CMA Song of the Year, making McKenna the first woman ever to win that plaudit two years running. I'm not so pie-eyed as to read literal political consequence into this coincidence. But not only has the institutional embodiment of our most politically conservative art form twice validated a damn Yankee from the most liberal state in the union, but that Yankee lives the life the art form has fantasized about and agonized over since Lefty Frizzell crooned "Mom and Dad's Waltz," Hank Williams moaned "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy," and Kitty Wells pointed out that "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

Given the tetchiness of country radio, I never broached the election with McKenna. I just didn't want to get her in trouble. But because her very early "Ruby's Shoes" was written for a son's school project on six-year-old integration pioneer Ruby Bridges, I did venture one question about political meanings. She answered, sensibly enough, that they were impossible to do right, and was happy when I suggested that the one with the self-explanatory title "Three Kids No Husband" does the trick pretty well. So does "Ruby's Shoes." And so does "Humble and Kind," unexceptionable on the surface and yet inimical to the cruel braggart the Electoral College but not the electorate will soon sign off on.

So ultimately, it was due to "Humble and Kind" that I could write about my visit to Boston with something vaguely resembling hope. Because ultimately, it reminds me how much Lori McKenna cares about human connection. At the end our talk landed on the streaming economy that dilutes her remuneration every year, and she acknowledged that her friends in Nashville couldn't stop worrying about it. But she insisted that for her the money was secondary. Condensed, this is how she put it.

"Let's say Donald Trump becomes president and the first thing he decides is that songwriters are overpaid and we go to minimum wage, we just get paid by the hour. I still think I'd be a songwriter. I just don't know what else I could do that would be so fulfilling. I'd work at Target, I'd work at Dunkin' Donuts, I'm still gonna write songs. So do I want people to hear the songs? For some reason or other that's part of it. And if I want people to hear the songs then I'll have to give them the songs. If it all somehow implodes and everything's backwards and everything's free I'm gonna have to pay people to listen to my songs. I mean as songwriters that's the only way we can do it."

Village Voice, November 30, 2016