Some relationships in our lives are so vital, constant and ordinary that it seems nearly impossible for any expression of affection to do them justice. Thankfully, immortalizing everyday intimacy is a specialty of Lori McKenna.
"People Get Old," the first song the New England-based singer-songwriter shared from the upcoming album The Tree (produced by Dave Cobb), was inspired by her hardworking father, who looked after six kids on his own when McKenna's mother passed.
"I never had a song for my dad," McKenna mused during a March event at the Country Music Hall of Fame honoring her songwriting career, "and I think it was probably because it's sort of too close, you know? Like, he's right there. It's almost easier to write a song for someone that isn't with us anymore."
She reassured the audience in the packed Ford Theater that afternoon that she had, indeed, run the song by her dad before recording it. "It's poetically maybe not what he was expecting," she chuckled.
The album version is loping and briskly strummed. McKenna unfurls mundane, childhood memories of symbols her dad's virility (his watch, his scotch, his "t-shirt with the sleeves cut off") before acknowledging the ways that the inevitable forces of growth, change and aging have eaten away at the sturdiness she's counted on seeing in him.
"You still think he's 45, and he still thinks that you're a kid," she sighs.
The album's 11 songs deliver plenty of eloquently plainspoken gut punches like that, either penned by McKenna alone or written with members of her inner circle, like Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose, Barry Dean and Luke Laird. McKenna's delivery is plucky and neighborly, and her compositions are framed by Cobb's spacious, naturalistic treatments, a few of which pick up enough steam to legitimately be described as folk-rock.
That's the sort of unlikely impact that McKenna has had on the country mainstream, all while remaining rooted in her small hometown of Stoughton, Ma. She's also influenced a rising generation of singer-songwriters — including Tenille Townes, profiled earlier this week — who admire the conscientiousness threaded through her writing and her humanizing use of detail. She's become a model for balancing the sort of success that entails accepting trophies on televised awards shows with a perspective that remains attuned to pocket-sized truths.
The Tree comes out July 20 via CN Records / Thirty Tigers.