In the world of songwriting, few resonate more powerfully than Lori McKenna.
Doubling as both a folksy recording artist and a country songwriter, her talent for visceral music and visual poetics have positioned her as one of the most renowed musicians in the country-folk space. Her catalog of studio albums, spanning more than two decades, reaffirms exactly that.
While her latest album The Balladeer was just released this past Friday to expected (and extremely well-deserved) praise, one of her earlier records, the 2004 release Bittertown, continues to hold a special place in McKenna’s heart. Self-referred to as “the record that [was] going to change [her] life”, Bittertown delivers a more angsty feel than McKenna’s later records but presents the same distinct voice and powerful lyricism ubiquitous throughout her library.
In a conversation with McKenna last summer surrounding her Return to Bittertown 7″ vinyl, a record celebrating the 15th anniversary of this career-changing album, she broke down the feelings that led to that album, as well as those that continue to affect her songwriting process today.
Looking back on the years surrounding the original Bittertown release, McKenna admits that fear played a large role in her earliest hesitations to pursue a career in songwriting and artistry; starting to perform publicly after already having a large (and growing) family, the fear of investing her own money, of spending time away from her kids, and of betting on a voice that she hadn’t originally believed in, weighed on her. And to this day while listening to the original Bittertown release, she hears that cautious fear break through her voice.
“I’ll admit looking at it now – I must have been a little scared. To be completely honest. In regards to music my fear would have been based in, “Can I really do this? Can I still keep spending money and time on this song thing, time away from my kids and family? Is this all too self-indulgent?” Looking back at some of these lyrics I think I felt trapped in that fear.”
Fear is a powerful propeller, however, and after Faith Hill heard that record, McKenna’s career was kickstarted into the chart-topping, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter career it is today. And as much in the mid-2000s as in present day, her family, especially her children, have continued to influence her music and project her to new songwriting heights.
“Although I’ve been writing songs since I was little – I didn’t start singing and playing out until I had three of our five kids. So the kids were always a huge part of this for me. They really gave me the confidence I needed to get out there with my songs. My kids inspire me more than anything in this world, emotionally but also musically. “
Hailing from and based in New England but with a home-away-from-home in Nashville, McKenna has spent the last decade writing hit country songs for other artists while continuing to work on albums of her own. Admitting that “[she] never imagined someone else would sing [her] songs until Faith [Hill] did,” she considers herself incredibly lucky to call herself a songwriter, as well as an artist who can draw loyal crowds with dedicated fans.
This latest record, The Balladeer, embodies McKenna’s persona from track one’s “This Town is a Woman” all the way through to the tenth and final track, “Till You’re Grown”. A record built around the simplicity of the things she sees and experiences, with themes that revolve around family and songwriting, featuring guest appearances from some of her greatest friends in the industry, this latest LP reinforces all of the aspects that make McKenna one-of-a-kind.
And whether the focal point is on Bittertown, its brief Return, or The Balladeer, McKenna’s narrative realism and graceful humility definitively shape each release in her family of records, a family which is as indispensible to the current folk-Americana scene as her family is to the records themselves.