Massachusetts singer-songwriter Lori McKenna is one of America’s most gifted storytellers, and we’ve relished each of her albums, stretching back to her earliest releases—Pieces of Me, The Kitchen Tapes, and in particular, 2004’s breakthrough Bittertown. In that early period McKenna garnered a number of critical accolades and became a fixture on the New England folk scene (recording primarily for Signature Sounds) but remained largely a regional figure.
That all changed in 2004. In one of the music industry’s best tales of songwriting success, McKenna secured a Nashville publishing deal and, the following year, saw Faith Hill cover four of her songs—three of which (including the title track) appeared on Hill’s 2005 release, Fireflies. Since then, the roster of big-time artists climbing the charts on the backs of McKenna’s tunes has comprised an enviable list: Mandy Moore, Sara Evans, Tim McGraw, Alison Krauss, and Little Big Town—whose 2016 hit “Girl Crush” was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. As often happens with such prolific writers, McKenna’s solo records—Unglamorous (2007), Lorraine (2011), Massachusetts (2013), and Numbered Doors (2014)—have achieved less notoriety, which is unfortunate, given that McKenna’s songs often feel the most authentic in her own voice, and with less-polished production than Nashville’s hit factory usually demands.
McKenna’s latest record, The Bird & the Rifle, was released on July 29th and was produced with Grammy-winner Dave Cobb, who’s perhaps the most popular guy on Music Row these days, having worked with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton—all of whom have recently executed major-selling albums. (Cobb has also quipped that he thinks McKenna’s voice is his favorite in country music.)
Like much of her work, the tracks on The Bird & the Rifle are unsentimental, mature, and at turns elegiac: The characters who inhabit McKenna’s songs are resolute folks enduring mundane dilemmas, a largely working-class cast gazing through the lens of middle-age, living in the same towns where they grew up, dreaming of lost opportunities, and trying not to romanticize the past—all the while greeting the exasperations of love, career, and family with as much humility and empirical honesty as they can muster. As Ann Powers at NPR wrote in July, “McKenna sings in an alto that’s powerful but never grandiose, as if she’s telling you something important but doesn’t want to make a fuss about it. It’s an ideal approach for sharing scenes of people who make mistakes, learn to cope, and face limits they may have created themselves.”
As satisfying as are repeated spins of this record, the English teacher in me thinks one really needs, at least once, to listen with the lyrics in hand. McKenna is an effortless wordsmith, and the resonance of her best phrases sometimes gets lost in the headlong pleasure of a song’s arrangements. As Jon Pareles neatly encapsulated, McKenna remains one of those “seasoned, skillful navigators of the intersections between the personal and the generalized, the heartfelt and the crafty, the everyday and the idealized.”
As summer hastens to its close, The Bird & the Rifle continues to stack up McKenna’s usual critical acclaim (here, here, and here), and we’d like to add our plug. Here are three vids: the title track from the new record, its second single, “Giving up on your Hometown,” and a live version of the smash “Girl Crush,” recorded at the London O2 for a CMA Songwriter series and featuring McKenna’s (pretty funny) story behind the tune’s post-slumber-party writing session.