Lori McKenna: Song Chaser

Lori McKenna_edited-1

Watercolor by Sue Shanahan

Lori McKenna is a singer-songwriter who lives in the blue collar community of Stoughton, Massachusetts. In 2016, she won a Grammy for co-writing “Girl Crush” performed by Little Big Town. In 2017, she won a Grammy for writing, “Humble and Kind” performed by Tim McGraw. In addition to Little Big Town and Tim McGraw, her songs have appeared on the albums of Alison Krause, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire and Faith Hill. She is the first female to ever win the AMC Songwriter of the Year Award and was recently saluted by the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Poets and Profits Series.

“Before you knew me I traveled around the world

I slept in castles and fell in love because I was taught to dream.”

– Lori McKenna, Fireflies

The first time I heard the name Lori McKenna was way back in 2006 when Faith Hill took the stay-at-home-mom on the Oprah Winfrey Show with her. Faith had recorded four of Lori’s songs for her newly released album, “Fireflies” and wanted to share her music with the world. Lori’s songs didn’t come to Faith through the usual channels of the Nashville music scene. It was more like a friend, of a friend, of a friend brought them to Faith’s attention. In Lori’s words, “It was like I won the lottery without buying a ticket.” That scenario is not entirely true. There was a lot of hard work done on Lori’s part before that fairy dust was sprinkled on her.

Being a fan of Lori’s music, isn’t the only reason I chose to write about her. I find a huge career being launched from songs written on a kitchen table, equally compelling. A devoted mother of five, she was nineteen and pregnant when she married her high school sweetheart, Gene. They live a half mile from the home she grew up in. Even though Lori’s home is far from the country music mecca of Nashville, her songs have found their place in that world in a big way. Her career gives hope to anyone who has a dream. 

Lori considers her childhood a happy one even though her mother died of a blood platelet disease when Lori was only seven. Her older brothers stepped in to help raise her so she never felt a huge sense of loss. She barely has any memories of her mom and thinks that may be because she was the youngest of six and her mother was sick a lot. “I don’t remember her almost at all. I think what I remember are just stories that somebody told me that I made into a memory.”

Lori grew up in a musical family. Her brothers were obsessed with James Taylor, Neil Young and Carol King. Her brother Richie played guitar and is the reason she took it up. “I was sort of always copying whatever Richie did. He’s a songwriter as well but never would share his songs.”

Other than mimicking her siblings as best as she could, Lori spent a lot of time alone. 

“I was not a kid that couldn’t be alone. I was sort of good at it,” she laughs. “I remember one day overhearing my Grandmother in the kitchen saying, ‘She’s so strange. She just stays in her room.’ It wasn’t like I was left alone or I didn’t have friends. I was not lonely being alone in those years. I think I spent a lot of time just writing poetry and listening to music.”

Lori wrote her first song when she was thirteen and hasn’t stopped writing them since. It wasn’t until she was 27 before she found the courage to perform them in public. She had seen too many people who were disillusioned because the music business hadn’t turned out the way they had hoped. 

“They seemed a little broken about it, and I knew I didn’t want to go in that direction. When I had my kids, I knew that they were my purpose. So if music wasn’t my purpose, I could stay in my kitchen. I thought, ‘well my kids are my job, and I can try music and see how it goes and not expect anything out of it.’” 

Lori is devoted to her family and posts about her kids and Gene on Instagram almost as much as she does her music. She acknowledges that without them she wouldn’t be where she is today. Not only did Gene’s job as a master plumber support them in the early days, but the musical inspiration she gets from her family is priceless. 

“My songs always have a little piece of my life in them. Sometimes I think they’re going to be 100% about me, but then they end up going somewhere else. If you’re limited to just yourself then it’s going to be harder to write the song and maybe the song won’t be as good. It might be a little boring. If the song suffers from being true, I’m not going to be true. I always take the song’s side first.”

Using her life as a starting point is all well and good when you write songs like “Humble and Kind” for your children but what about songs that potentially put your husband in a negative light? Songs like “Stealing Kisses” and “The Bird and the Rifle” seem to point to the quiet desperation of a disintegrating marriage.

“Life is hard. You have to go full force.” – Gene McKenna

“The thing about Gene that’s interesting is he never, ever questions anything that I write. He knows the way my brain works. He knows how dark the roads will become in the song to get the point across. Gene has never asked me not to sing something or to change anything, even if it sounds like it’s about him. In some ways, putting my songs out there is more brave for him than it is for me because he will get the blame.”

I was surprised to learn that a songwriter as gifted as Lori struggles as a reader.

“I’m not a good reader. I rarely finish a book. I can’t absorb them or digest them the way other people do. I think I learn differently. There is some sort of visual thing going on with what my eyes see and what my brain processes. I just feel like I’m simplified in those ways.” 

Beneath her simplicity lives a brilliant mind. For her lyrics, Lori draws ideas from sources other than the written word. “I’m an idea puller, and I do reach to other things for inspiration, like going to live shows or listening to podcasts.”

Lori admits that some of her best ideas come from television and movies. The song “Witness to Your Life” came from a conversation in the Susan Sarandon movie “Shall We Dance.” “My Love Follows You Were You Go” came from a line she heard on the “The Real Housewives of New York.” The song “The Bird and the Rifle” had a similar inception.

“I wrote that with Troy Virgus and Katelyn Smith. This makes it sound like I watch so much TV (she laughs), but that title was from the television show ‘Modern Family.’ It was the punchline of a joke. I just loved it. I thought, it’s five words and everybody sees a picture in those five words.”

These days Lori is still based in Stoughton penning songs and raising the tail end of her brood. She travels to Nashville once a month to compose with other songwriters. She admits the hardest thing about her life is being pulled in so many directions.

“I’ve been blessed to have the best of both worlds and really the hardest thing is balancing. I’m still trying to figure out when to put it down and pay attention to my family and when do I chase a song all over the house?”

At first glance Lori’s background doesn’t look like it could have provided her with the expertise necessary to be the mega hit songwriter that she is. Yet somehow she was given everything she needed to shine her light, and she knows she didn’t do it alone.

“I have this career now that I never dreamed I could have. Now that I know how the music business works, there is no way there wasn’t a Higher Power guiding me and helping me along. If I’ve proved anything it’s that crazy dreams can come true.”

Assistance from a higher source explains so much about Lori’s career path. She never tried to force any of her dreams into being. She simply played music for the love of it. She walked through the doors that appeared and ended up where she is today. Hanging loose with how your dreams will manifest always leaves space for God to out dream you. I don’t know about you, but I’d say Lori McKenna has been officially out dreamed.

Lori’s next album, “The Tree,” will be released in July.

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*Coming up next: Award winning fine art photographer, and author of the record breaking Wonderland Book, Kirsty Mitchell.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com