Most aspiring artists begin pounding the pavement as teens—but not country-based singer and songwriter Lori McKenna, who took a decidedly different route. By the time she issued her debut independent effort Paper Wings and Halo in 1998, McKenna was already 30, a full-time mom, and, unlike so many of her peers, preferred the comfort of her native Stoughton, Mass., to the hubbub of all-business Nashville. McKenna continued making the rounds at Boston-area nightclubs, issuing several more albums on her own before signing on with legendary Nashville composer Harlan Howard’s publishing firm.
Lori McKenna Selected Credits
Mom turned songwriter Lori McKenna scored hits for Faith Hill before amping up her solo career. Here are some key McKeena cuts and compositions:
"I Know You"
"Leaving This Life"
"Pieces of Me"
"Feeding the Angels"
"Bible Song" (Sara Evans)
"Stealing Kisses" (Faith Hill)
"If You Ask" (Faith Hill)
"Latest Mistake" (Mandy Moore)
"I'm Workin" (Tim McGraw)
Her fourth indie release, 2004’s Bittertown, revealed the depth of McKenna’s folk-country sensibilities—a fact not lost on country superstar Faith Hill, who promptly covered two of the album’s stand-out tracks, “Stealing Kisses” and “If You Ask,” as well as the soon-to-be title song for Hill’s 2005 album, Fireflies. If that wasn’t enough, Hill asked McKenna to join her for an appearance on the mega-popular Oprah Winfrey Show, then subsequently brought McKenna on her 2007 “Soul2Soul” tour with husband Tim McGraw.
Merging Everyday Life with Imagination
Released last year, the McGraw-produced Unglamorous, McKenna’s fifth (and second major-label) album, offers 11 songs that focus on the joys and hardships of everyday American family life—the kind of stuff that a middle-class mom like McKenna could write volumes about. Still, McKenna is quick to point out that not all of her creations are necessarily derived from first-hand experience. “That’s just how my brain works,” she says. “I can take a little piece of something that I’ve heard somewhere and turn it into a song written in the first person.”
Writing at the Kitchen Table
As a mother of five, McKenna has learned to not let the usual household distractions interfere with the muse—in fact, many of her song ideas are worked out right at the kitchen table while the kids are busy supplying background noise. “My kids put everything in line for me,” says McKenna, who keeps a battery of acoustic guitars on hand for composing, including a threequarter sized Martin 000-15, which stays in DADGAD tuning. McKenna says the best days for writing “are those days when everything inspires you…but mostly everyday people and their stories, my kids, my family, my friends. And more than anything- the music.
From Lone Wolf to Collaborator
Though McKenna has penned much of her backlog without assistance, her blossoming career ultimately paved the way for a handful of successful songwriting partnerships. In addition to the title track to Unglamorous (co-written with the prolific Liz Rose), McKenna’s collaboration with Nashville veteran Mark D. Sanders resulted in the memorable “Leaving This Life,” an emotion-packed song about McKenna’s mom, who passed away when McKenna was just a child.
Support From Home
McKenna, whose songwriting mentors include such diverse artists as Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams and even AC/DC (“they’re inspirational because they bring me back to high school—always a great place for a housewife to be,” she says), continues to expand her fan base. Last December, the prestigious Boston Music Awards bestowed Album of the Year honors on McKenna for Unglamorous, and weeks later the singer-songwriter celebrated with a series of sold-out shows at the celebrated Passim folk club in nearby Cambridge. Still, McKenna remains philosophical about the events that have helped shape her belated career path. “If the audience had hated my songs, it wasn’t going to make or break me, because I had so much here at home,” says McKenna, who credits her husband Gene, a local gas contractor, for giving her the courage to become a performer in the first place. “If it didn’t work, I could at least share that lesson with my kids. I can’t be regretful, because at least I tried to pursue this.” Going forward, she adds, “I just want to write great songs, timeless songs - the kind of songs that affect people.”