Lori McKenna: Song Chaser
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
“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 in 2006. Faith Hill had brought the stay-at-home mom with her to perform on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Four of Lori’s songs were on Faith’s newly released album, “Fireflies.” As a homemaker, sandwiching in time at my drawing table between household chores, that show ignited hope in me. If Lori’s music could be plucked from obscurity, perhaps my artistic gifts could be found too.
Lori’s songwriting 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. Lori laughs, “It was like I won the lottery without buying a ticket.” That scenario is not entirely true. There were years of hard work on Lori’s part before any fairy dust was sprinkled her way.
Since Faith discovered her, Lori has gone on to have her music recorded by country stars like Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Keith Urban and Hunter Hayes. In 2016, she won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year for the second year straight thanks to co-writing Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and writing Tim McGraw’s number one hit “Humble and Kind.” Both songs also clinched Grammys for Best Country Song. In 2017, she became the Academy of Country Music’s first female Songwriter of the Year.
Despite living far from the music mecca of Nashville, Lori’s gifts have certainly found a place there. She grew up in the blue collar community of Stoughton, Massachusetts. She was nineteen and pregnant when she married her high school sweetheart, Gene. They live a half mile from her childhood home. Many of her songs were penned in between cooking and carpooling.
Her mother died of a blood platelet disease when she was only seven. Even so, Lori considers her childhood a happy one. Her older brothers stepped in to help raise her. Their love protected Lori from being overcome by a sense of loss. She barely has any memories of her mother, “I was the youngest of six and my mom was sick a lot. I don’t remember her almost at all. I think what I recall are just stories that somebody told me that I’ve made into a memory.”
Growing up, Lori’s family was a musical one. 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. “He was a songwriter as well. I was sort of always copying whatever Richie did.”
Mimicking her siblings musical leanings meant that 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.”
At thirteen, she composed her first song and hasn’t stopped writing them since. She was 27 when she finally found the courage to perform them in public. She was leery about putting herself out there. 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.’”
Without her family Lori, acknowledges she wouldn’t be where she is today. Gene’s job as a master plumber supported them in the early years. It allowed her the freedom to hone her craft. Immersing herself in the lives of those she loves is what feeds Lori. Plus, an ordinary day often supplies a starting point to build a song around.
“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.”
Taking from her world is a good thing when Lori is writing songs like “Humble and Kind” for her children. But there are also songs that could put her 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.”
Most would assume that the poetic insight in her lyrics means that Lori is an avid reader. But not so. She writes from her instincts and confesses that she is not a conventional learner.
“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 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.”
But beneath what Lori’s refers to as simplicity lives a brilliant mind. For her lyrics, she 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 confesses 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” was taken 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.”
As of right now 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. For her the toughest thing about life is being tugged in so many directions.
“I’ve been blessed to have the best of both worlds. 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, it doesn’t seem possible that Lori’s background could be the springboard for all she has accomplished. But it was. Evolving into a mega-hit songwriter is a byproduct of being fully herself. At the same time 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 above would explain a lot about Lori’s success. She never tried to force any of her hopes or ambitions into being. She played music for the love of it. She walked through the doors that presented themselves to end up where she is today. It’s been said it’s good to hang loose with how your goals will manifest. Letting go leaves space for God to out-dream you. Lori McKenna’s career reminds me to keep the faith. If she can be out-dreamed, anyone can.
Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan