There are quite literally too many good Lori McKenna songs to count. The Massachusetts songwriter and singer (songwriter is intentionally listed first, because her words are truly her claim to fame) is one of the most in-demand lyricists in Nashville, co-writing up to 100 songs a year (per a 2018 Washington Post interview). Recently, she’s collaborated with up-and-comers like Hailey Whitters, in addition to helping bring to life some of the most moving songs on albums from Miranda Lambert, The Highwomen, Little Big Town, Mandy Moore and so many more.
She’s a kind of secret royalty in Nashville, but she still lives in the small town of Stoughton, Mass., where she met her husband in the third grade. Her songs peek into the depths and beyond the niceties of humanity, shining a flashlight on both the ugliness and beauty that comes with relationships and everyday life. More recently, her songs have been informed by family, motherhood (she and her husband have raised five children of their own) and aging. On 2018’s The Tree, she explored the happy exhaustion that comes with parenting, the grief of people around you growing old and the fire of youth (from an older, wiser perspective). It seems that with every stage of life McKenna improves her craft. Her songs say so much with so little.
“It’s not a novel,” she said in that feature for The Post. “It’s not even an essay. It’s three verses and a chorus that repeats itself. So you don’t have a lot of words to say what you’re trying to say.”
Similarly, it would take a lot of words to rank every single song McKenna has written or co-written. It’s much more prudent to spend conscious time with particular sound bites from throughout her discography—that’s where the magic is. This is all to say that it would be ill-advised to take this list as the definitive ranking of Lori McKenna songs. Think of it more like a sampler, or a beginner’s guide to one of the best and most prolific songwriters working in country music (or in any genre, for that matter). These 10 songs do not fully exemplify the breadth of her work and career, but they may give you a simple taste of McKenna’s numerous talents and signature tracks, which is why we refrained from ranking them. If you like what you hear, you can pre-order her new album The Balladeer (out Friday, July 24, on CN Records via Thirty Tigers) right here.
Listen to “Fireflies,” and you’d feel sure that Lori McKenna believes in magic. Maybe not the Harry Potter type of magic, or dragons or leprechauns. But she believes in the simple delight of watching a swarm of lightning bugs glow inside a jar. She puts it this way on this Pieces of Me track, which also appeared on Faith Hill’s 2005 album of the same name: “I believe in fairytales / And dreamer’s dreams / Like bedsheet sails / And I believe in Peter Pan / And miracles, anything I can to get by.”
This jubilant song appeared on Little Big Town’s 2017 album The Breaker, and this year it also found a home on Hailey Whitters’ The Dream. But McKenna’s version (the original version, in a sense, since these are, in fact, her lyrics) is my favorite. “Happy People” seeks to enlighten the listener with the secrets to joy. As you might imagine, it’s not money, and, whatever it is you think will make you happy, it’s not something out of reach.
Many (most?) of McKenna’s best songs will make you cry. This one is about as tragic as they come. An addict walks through life in a “borrowed dress,” fighting for love despite her addiction, but, in the end, she doesn’t make it. The mandolin and McKenna’s guitar provide a somber backdrop to this ghostly, yet heartfelt, tale.
Songs from McKenna’s 2016 album The Bird & the Rifle appear on this list several times. They’re not as sonically raw as the music on her breakout albums Bittertown and Unglamorous, but they feel like succinct representations of McKenna’s skill set, not to mention they’re all genuinely incredible songs about life, death and everything in between. “Wreck You” looks at a relationship on the rocks, and there’s no resolution to the troubles in sight. But McKenna never promised easy answers for life’s problems—just truthful snapshots of them.
This is yet another McKenna classic made famous by someone else. In this case, it was one of country music’s biggest heavy-hitters: Tim McGraw released the song on his 2015 album Damn Country Music, and it became a radio hit. McKenna included it on her 2016 album The Bird & the Rifle, and it’s a warm reminder to keep one’s pride at bay and make compassion a priority. This song was the #StayHumble hashtag realized. McKenna’s lyrics are certainly vivid and touching, but her trusty moral compass? Well, that’s just a given, especially on songs like this one that could double as a sermon.
This is another tearjerker. Sometimes McKenna is at her most powerful when she’s just stating the simple facts of life: “People get old.” It’s true. Death comes for every single one of us, but we don’t like to acknowledge that reality when we’re young, do we? McKenna touches on the fleeting sadness of childhood on her new album The Balladeer (especially through the lens of a parent), but she addressed it here in a most plainspoken, affecting manner: “When you twirl your kids in your arms,” she sings. “Before you know it, it won’t take too long / They’ll be runnin’ off makin’ a life just like you did.” Pass the tissues.
Even when she’s filled with regret, she’s never bitter. On this song, though, she comes pretty close. “I could have walked around the world a couple times / I could have swam across the ocean and back again / Made a wish on every star that Galileo drew / For all the time I’ve wasted on you,” she sings, before adding an even more clever opportunity cost: “I could have downed a million beers in Mexico / Counted every piece of gravel on a long country road / Sailed that slow boat to China right up to the moon / For all the time I’ve wasted on you.” But even after airing her grievances regarding a relationship that didn’t work out, she acknowledges it wasn’t, in fact, a total “waste”: “For everything I’ve lost I’m not mad at love.” Lord, give me the patience of a woman in a Lori McKenna song.
Unglamorous is a great Lori McKenna album. It was her major label debut, released on StyleSonic Records through Warner Bros. Records in 2007 and produced by Tim McGraw (shortly after she provided music to McGraw’s wife, Faith Hill). She usually thrives in the space between country and folk, leaning heavily on folk music’s storytelling framework, but “Witness to Your Life” is the closest McKenna ever comes to country pop. Yet, even as the bouncing rock ‘n’ roll drums swell up along side a chirpy mandolin, she maintains her earnest lyricism. “Witness to Your Life” would fit right in on an album from Taylor Swift’s country phase, but this song could only have been written by an older, wiser woman with all the knowledge on how to make relationships work. How lovely is it, that someone would offer to not only be a part of your life, but a “witness to your life”?
Bittertown is about exactly what it sounds like: small towns, and both the “bitter” and gracious people who inhabit them. “Bible Song” begins with a small town-er plotting her escape, praying she can find a way out before she dies there: “They marry young in these parts / They work the factories / 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”). But McKenna, being the master of devastating wordplay that she is, doesn’t let everyone come out unscathed. A 24-year-old relative overdoses on pills, and “his mother came undone / When the choir sang ‘Hallelujah.’”
“Susanna,” a cut from the excellent 2013 album named for McKenna’s home state of Massachusetts, is sung to a widow’s dead wife. It’s haunting in the truest sense of the word, but it’s also heartbreaking, because you can’t hear this song without getting all broken up over the idea of this lonely broken soul “left behind” here on Earth. The good news, however, is that their love is so strong that Susanna’s presence is still everywhere. “Why don’t you paint him a brand new sky?” McKenna sings to her. “With all the colors of your perfect eyes?” Now that’s a love song.