Lori McKenna is in the backyard of her home in Stoughton less than a block from where she grew up, and she’s laughing. The woman who writes miniatures of the way life happens, who paints a tableau of marital ennui and how thin paychecks stretch is anything but dour.
Her CD Paper Wings & Halo created quite the buzz in 2000 when it busted straight out of the mother of three’s kitchen. Subsequent releases, Pieces of Me and The Kitchen Tapes, further captured the real world view of an everyday housewife married to the boy she spotted in third grade and started dating junior year.
Bittertown, her Boston-based Signature Records 2005 release, put the lower middle-class housewife in the company of the nation’s best songwriters as she drew comparisons to Springsteen for her close-to-the-bone narratives, all small details and broken hearts.
Ms. McKenna brings her talents and integrity to the Vineyard this Saturday, July 27, for a concert at Dreamland to benefit the Alliance for Children Foundation which works to provide homes for homeless children in Kenscoff, Haiti. Kiley Evans opens the concert.
Life began taking on a tinge of Technicolor surreality, though, when Ms. McKenna went from touring “no more than two days” in the family minivan, to having four songs recorded by country superstar Faith Hill, as well as Allison Krauss, Mandy Moore, Sara Evans and Keith Urban, and having an entire “Oprah” built around her Cinderella story. The singer/songwriter is an unlikely yet utterly authentic voice of a generation.
“It’s definitely the perspective of somebody who’s not young, there’s no doubt about it,” she admits, as the laughter rolls down the phone. “Weathered love, how life wears you down and shapes you...
“It’s funny when someone says a song is depressing! Sure, every song has the hard stuff in there, but also the ‘it’s okay; you’re gonna get through it,’ too! It’s the darkness and the light.”
Her songs ripple with the tough realities of life. Even Unglamorous, her record for Tim McGraw’s own imprint, painted pictures of marriages tearing apart, misfit kids growing into hardened adults and the way there’s light in the cracks of the American Dream, if you’ll look.
Once you start reckoning, you recognize a sense of relief. Someone, let alone a woman with a heart-shaped face and a wash of deep brown hair, is telling the truth. It’s startling.
Equally startling is her response to the big time stardom that didn’t happen. Laughing again, she concedes, “I’ve always been a bad planner. When [Unglamorous] came out, someone asked me where I wanted to be in five years? And I’m like, I don’t even know where I’m going to be next week.”
“I’m always amazed by people who think they deserve something from music. People who’re like ‘I’m gonna be a rock star,’ ‘I’m gonna be this big songwriter’ or ‘I’m gonna be a country singer’ amaze me. To have that confidence? Wow...But me? Everything I got from my career, I’m always, how is this even possible?”
“You know, my Dad worked at Boston Edison for 42 years. I saw how he looked when he went to work in the morning — and how he looked when he came home. To me, getting to do this job, writing songs and singing them, is like winning the lottery.”
When major stardom didn’t hit, even after a slot on the Hill/McGraw Soul II Soul Tour, she didn’t mind. She went home to her five kids, made the CD Lorraine, named for the mother she lost at six and is named for, and settled back into her double life as someone’s wife and parent and a creative force that could inspire new country sensation Ashley Monroe to hitchhike to Staughton to write with her.
Ms. McKenna just released Massachusetts on her own label, recorded live with the hometown band and produced by guitarist Mark Erelli, which again tackles betrayal and disappointment with a scathing truth, but also the weightlessness that comes with knowing. As for that hope she speaks of, it’s there, too.
The song How Romantic Is That turns the compromised reality of a shotgun wedding into a valentine, while her musky take on My Love Will Follow You Where You Go is earthier than Alison Krauss’ version, funkier, shufflier, more woman who knows than hopeful angel. Grown Up Now is a love song to those children who’ve always been priority #1 to McKenna and her plumber/husband. Even Susanna is inspired by the romance of Guy Clark and his recently deceased wife. She’s met Clark once, Susanna never, but paid homage by co-writing the song with Troy Verges.
“Co-writing, people say, isn’t a true representation,” Ms. McKenna said. She marvels at people’s reaction to the notion. “It’s true. If I come in with an idea, it’s not the same, but that’s not the point. Everyone’s notion of what the songs are is their own, and no song is just one thing — and sometimes it’s even truer for the different perspectives.”
Ms. McKenna is wide open to the truth that life is complicated, and that there is no one truth. This is the same way she embraces her Nashville musical community and the band she with whom she shares the road.
“Mark [Erelli] has been there through it all,” she says. “When I play a show, he’s standing there to my left: the Soul II Soul Tour, the (Grand Ole) Opry. He knows these songs, listened to 70 to come down to these 12.”
The tiny woman with the tart’n’sweet alto inspires that sort of loyalty. It is the conviction she brings to her music, and the willingness to tell the absolute twinging hurt that lends an authenticity you can’t fake.
For a charity like the Alliance for Children Fund, she offers the same grace and unflinching desire to meet life where it is and make it better. In a world of shiny, glossy charity photo ops, she is as real as the children in Kenscoff, Haiti that the show will help.
“I was talking to Mary Gauthier (acclaimed New England songwriter) about my voice,” she admits. “And she said, ‘Lori, we aren’t singers’ I looked at her. Well, what are we?”
“We’re stylists,” she said. “Vocal stylists.”
There’s the truth. Slightly twangy, a little cracked, but utterly believable. For one night on Martha’s Vineyard, the woman who survived the Cinderella ride and emerged even better will show you what that means.
The Lori McKenna concert with Kiley Evans begins at 8 p.m., July 27, at Dreamland, 9 Oak Bluffs avenue. Tickets are available at ticketsmv.com.