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  • Rich Kassirer

Look out Nashville, Lori McKenna has arrived… (But she still belongs to Boston!)

Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna

A recording session is stopped abruptly, and a new-to-town songwriter is introduced, brought in to “fix” the projected hit song for Miss Rayna James, Nashville’s Queen of Country Music. The stranger doesn’t fit the mold of the shiny country music scene: She is short, dark-haired, and (gasp!) a mother of five … oh, and (double gasp!) she’s a folk singer … from Boston. Jealousy and intrigue ensue!

‘I like your idea about the story line. I’d be a shoo-in!” says Lori McKenna, about our fictitious plot idea for the ABC hit TV show “Nashville.”

The reality is that this is not how the scenario has played out for the mother of five, Boston-area folk singer. The country community has, in fact, been very welcoming to her – so welcoming that some of her prized songs have found stardom with the biggest names in country music.

“Sober,” “Your Side of the Bed” and the new “Girl Crush” which she co-wrote, have found the charts as Little Big Town hits. “I Want Crazy,” another co-write, was one of the biggest country hits of 2013 for Hunter Hayes. McKenna’s “The Luxury of Knowing” made country playlists thanks to Keith Urban’s version. Faith Hill titled one of her albums “Fireflies,” named for the McKenna song she covered. And Alison Krauss pristinely sings “My Love Follows You Where You Go,” a song McKenna wrote and released on her 2013 album, “Massachusetts.” (McKenna released her latest album, the critically acclaimed “Numbered Doors,” this September.)

All of which is fine and dandy to the self-proclaimed “housewife” singer-songwriter from Stoughton, Mass., who just happens to write some of the most gut-wrenchingly real songs capturing the struggles and triumphs of everyday life. After all, she gets a check each time one of her songs is picked up by a big-name artist.

But it’s so much more than that, says McKenna. “I’ve been really lucky – because the songs that I’ve had cut by other artists have usually been done in a beautiful way. I mean, ‘My Love Follows You Where You Go’ was written for my kids and hearing Allison Krauss sing it – it’s like hearing an angel sing something that came from your heart.  That’s a really quite a blessing.”

But for those who have seen McKenna perform over the course of her 20-year career, those same songs and many others hit just a little closer to home when she sings them herself.

The plot thickens: The Boston singer gets a gig at the famed Bluebird Cafe. “No one will turn out to hear folk music,” Juliette Barnes sneers…

As much as she can write a great country song, in her hometown state Lori McKenna is a true star of Boston’s folk scene. She started out at Boston-area open mikes in the mid-1990s and has gained fans and garnered critical success for her shows at clubs and coffeehouses across New England. She plays five shows in three nights at Club Passim in Cambridge and sells out each one. She can travel north to Portland, Maine, south to New Bedford, west to Northampton and there won’t be an empty seat.

“I think country songs are a lot like folk songs,” says McKenna. “They are songs about people facing regular struggles and enjoying ordinary joys. I like songs that I can identify with and I think most people do.”

Despite the starpower behind those who cover her music, when McKenna sings her own songs, the desperation is deeper, the memories are more vivid, and relationships – between husband and wife, mother and child – mean everything.

“Whenever I hear one of Lori’s songs, I am always waiting to hear that one line that just devastates me,” says Mark Erelli, a fellow singer-songwriter who frequently plays with McKenna and who has produced her last two albums. “I don’t necessarily mean that the lyric makes you sad, though God knows she has that down. It’s just that one lyric or phrase that really distills an everyday truth that’s right in front of me in such a way that’s never occurred to me before.”

She opens “How Romantic Is That” with this: “Forget about Paris/Or the Pacific Ocean/The honeymoon lasted 24 hours and was a town away/Then it was you and me/In that little apartment/Eight months before the baby came.”

As Erelli says, a phrase or even the way she phrases a lyric adds a depth of character that more mainstream artists gloss over: In “Stealing Kisses,” one of McKenna’s great tunes from perhaps her finest album, “Bittertown,” she sings, “You haven’t talked to an adult all day/Except your neighbor, who drives you crazy/When he finally gets in/He’s sure not in the mood for talkin’.” She elongates the word “craazzy” just enough that it pinpoints the utter loneliness this woman feels because her husband is never home. A cover of the song by Faith Hill completely misses that exclamation point of despair.

Her songwriting skills and distinctive voice set her apart from other singer-songwriters on the circuit.

“The first thing that struck me about Lori was that she always sang with such passion,” says Jim Olsen, whose indie label Signature Sounds signed McKenna early on. For me it was the voice first and then the lyrics. It was pretty clear that she had some magic right from the start. I loved the fact that she wrote from the perspective of a young working-class mom who took on subject matters you didn’t hear much from the other young folkies. She wrote about the struggles of parenthood and it was refreshing. So many young artists in the folk scene of that time focused on their love life. Lori was different from the start.”

Her first albums definitely had a more folk feel. “Paper Wings and Halo” and “Pieces of Me” featured some solid songs, including the fanciful “Fireflies,” with the lyrics “I found mayonnaise bottles and poked holes on top/To capture Tinkerbell/They were just fireflies to the untrained eye/But I could always tell.” A self-released solo album of demos called “The Kitchen Tapes” foreshadowed what was to come. But it was “Bittertown” where it was clear that McKenna’s songwriting had changed.

The songs were edgier, more mature and they infiltrated the household and snuck around in the corners of people’s private lives, telling the stories, exploring the feelings that you don’t even tell your best friends. The album was filled with people from blue-collar towns growing up, growing old and trying to survive the day to day. In “Bible Song,” she sings “They marry young in these parts/They raise their kids and set them free/So I ran as fast as I could/Through the tall grass and the midnight woods/So nobody would sing some Bible song over me.”

“Lori became such a prolific writer in that period, and everything she was turning out was different and really good,” says Olsen. “She found her true voice. I remember being absolutely stunned when I heard the rough mixes of ‘Bittertown.’ The album was so raw and honest and every single song was great. I still consider it to be one of the very best albums that Signature Sounds ever released, and my favorite Lori McKenna album.”

Back in the studio, the Boston songwriter is introduced to Rayna James. “Rayna, this here is a folk singer from Boston. She’s got a song we think would be perfect for you.”

To those who have followed her career, McKenna’s back story is well-known: She has five kids and a blue-collar, good-guy husband who fully supports her. There was a small window in 2007 when, championed by country royal couple Hill and husband Tim McGraw, McKenna gained some national attention. After Hill covered her songs, McKenna was given a prestigious opening slot on Hill and McGraw’s national tour, and she even made it onto Oprah’s couch (as the housewife songwriter).

Other Boston folk goddesses (Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt), after being found, moved away and gained national glory. It could have happened for McKenna as well, but life as a wife and mother won out, and so did her fans in Boston as she returned home to the welcoming confines of those same local clubs where she began.

Yet, with an assist from fellow singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, Nashville did take notice of McKenna’s talents and came calling. She was signed to a big-label contract, and released the Warner Bros.-backed album, “Unglamorous,” which adorned McKenna’s gritty lyrics with a bit of Nashville sheen. The title track, which mimicked her busy home life, got some strong radio play and the album cracked the Billboard country charts for a short period.

But her time in Nashville may have been best served by the connections she made, becoming part of the co-writing culture there. She has since paired with other songwriters, including Liz Rose, Barry Dean, and Hillary Lindsey to pen tunes not only for her own albums, but for others as well.

“It’s another great way to stretch yourself as a writer,” says McKenna. “I think as songwriters we all try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes anyway.”

“Liam, Scarlett, I’d like to introduce you to someone who might be able to add something to that song you’ve been working on…”

“I really feel very blessed to be in a position where I have the opportunity to try and help someone write “their” song.  Or to write a song that someone else will be inspired to sing,” she says. “I can’t play an instrument like the great players or sing any song like a great singer can – so songwriting is my way of connecting with other artists and sharing that space in music with them. It’s been hugely enlightening for me.”

So can she tell the difference between writing a Lori song or one for someone else?

“Yes. Usually right away,” she says. “That’s probably not always a good thing. There’s been times that I’ve played a song for Mark Erelli that I didn’t think was really ‘me’ enough – and he’s seen it from a different perspective. Sometimes it’s a great exercise to try and wear it as my own. I’m such a creature of habit – it’s good for me to stray from the same road I always want to go down.”

So along with a monthly Nashville co-write trip, she has picked up right where she left off, with three more fine albums, including “Lorraine,” which very personally delved into her relationship with her mother, the fittingly titled “Massachusetts,” and now “Numbered Doors,” which peers into the lives of others.

From Erelli’s point of view, the co-writing ventures have deepened McKenna’s own songwriting.

“As a musician, I do hear differences in the two types of songs,” says Erelli, “especially if she’s writing with a co-writer who plays a different instrument or draws from a more technical side in the arrangements. But I think the two sides have influenced each other for the better. Her best solo songs are catchier and more concise, and her best co-writes have more emotional authenticity and honesty in them than anything else I hear coming out of Nashville.”

So would McKenna consider pulling up stakes and moving south?

“I’m a New England girl. I would miss this place if I didn’t get to spend a lot of time here. I would miss my extended family,” she says. “There are a lot of great people who live here. My best friends here are the girls I met in seventh-grade band.  We also have a great music scene here – we always have and that’s what drew me to music in the first place. Someday it’d be nice to have a house in Nashville. It is my second home – but that’s a long way off.”

As for that TV show about love, jealousy, and music of Nashville, McKenna says she is a fan. “They’ve got some good music in there and a few of my friends have really had their songs showcased – so that’s always nice.”

After the dark-haired stranger plays her a song, Rayna stares her down, walks over… and shakes her hand: “Welcome to town,” she says.

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