It's 11 p.m. in Stoughton, Mass., the town of 27,000 where Lori McKenna has lived since birth. The kitchen light is on, but the rest of the house is completely still. Her husband, Gene, is at the pub with friends after a long day plumbing for the local gas company, and the boys—Brian, Mark and Chris—are all asleep (it'll be years before the final two members of the McKenna clan, Meghan and David are born).
On the table is a notebook—a journal of sorts, but with song lyrics—and in her hands is an acoustic guitar (not the one her brother Richie will give her when she finally ventures out to play an open-mic night). She has no reason to believe the songs she’s writing will be heard by anyone (much less covered by Faith Hill and Mandy Moore); they’re just an outlet to process her life as a housewife, living in a small town, raising three kids. It’s a cozy kitchen in an even cozier house (a far cry from the stately white one where the family of seven will move after Lori appears with Hill on Oprah and signs her own record deal with Warner?Bros. Nashville).
McKenna grew up just down the street, the youngest of six children, and lost her mother when she was six. Her older siblings took piano lessons, but by the time she was 13, it was much easier on her family’s schedule for her to learn guitar like Richie. Brothers Bobby and Richie both wrote their own songs, and soon Lori was doing the same. But where Bobby used his songs to start bands around the neighborhood, Lori’s were always just for herself.
By 16 she was dating Gene McKenna, and by 19 they were married with a baby on the way. The young family lived with Lori’s father, and Gene traveled to Western Massachusetts each week for a plumbing job until he’d saved up enough money for a house of their own, the one with the cozy kitchen with the light on.
"When we got married, we had a bedroom and a half-bath,” Lori says in her brand new, much more spacious home, “but we would eat dinner with my father and my stepmom—and my sister lived there. ... I’m sure that if I’d had the money I would’ve wanted to live in an apartment or anything else—but I literally had three adults helping me figure out how to raise this baby. I had never even changed a diaper before I had Brian. Looking back, it was such a blessing because I had all these other people that helped me, which they still do. Gene just worked his ass off and saved his money in a year-and-a-half to put down on a house, and we lived there for 15 years.”
Lori worked part-time jobs, including a stint selling Tupperware, and kept writing songs at night, but played them for only her closest friends until she was 27. “It got to the point,” she says, “where a couple times a year, friends would come over and we’d just sit around, play cards and drink some beers, and then at the end of the night I’d play a song. I got comfortable enough to where I’d play in front of my friends.”
When Lori’s sister Marie and her sisters-in-law Andrea and Nancy finally tried to talk her into playing an open-mic night, she had no idea what they were talking about. “We have such a booming local music scene,” Lori says. “You can’t spit without hitting a local songwriter in town, and I had no idea. [My son] Brian—as soon as he was 16 and old enough to drive, he was driving himself to shows. I never tapped into that and had it figured out, ever. And then when I discovered it, I was like, ‘Good Lord! This is amazing.’”
Her goal became playing a show at The Old Vienna Kaffeehaus up in Westborough, run by local folk guru Robert Haigh. When she finally worked up the courage, it became an event. Family members piled into Andrea’s minivan, where they ate hors d’oeuvres on the hour-long drive. As an unknown artist, her set came toward the end of the show. “I did my two songs, and sat there through a few other people, and then we [left]. And then I’ll never forget—I walked downstairs and my brother was holding his guitar that I borrowed, and all of a sudden, we hear, ‘Hey!’ Robert had followed us out. I turned around and he said, ‘You should come back sometime. You did good.’ And my brother Richie was handing me his guitar—‘Keep it! This is yours! This is amazing! He followed you outside!’ I still have that guitar.”
She returned a month later, and Haigh told her to save up her money to make a CD. “It was like $5,000,” she says. “But that’s a shitload of money for someone who has three kids and a mortgage. And basically, we did it over time, and my family helped me—my brother Donald paid for some of it; my brother Richie paid for some of it. And Robert, who helped me so much, would never take a dime from me. He helped me that whole year and got me gigs and radio [appearances] and never would take a penny from me. I was just lucky to be in a situation where all of these people would help me. And then I just figured, ‘I have to sell this many CDs to get my money back.’ And that’s really all my expectation of it was: It would be great to sell enough to make my money back. And the fact that that record still sells sometimes is kind of crazy.”
That debut was Paper Wings and Halo, produced by Seth Connelly in his basement studio. McKenna included three live songs to send out to venues in hopes of getting a show, something she says she never had the courage to follow through with. But Haigh booked her a CD-release party at Boston’s legendary Club Passim. She couldn’t believe she was going to headline. She told the soundman Matt Smith, “No one’s going to come.” He replied, “Are you kidding me? It’s sold out.”
The record got rave reviews in the local media, earning a spot on the Boston Globe’s year-end Top 10 list and selling nearly 10,000 copies as McKenna started playing out more and more in the evenings. Her songs—the unfiltered musings of a young woman who grew up without a mother, married young and quickly had three children of her own—connected with audiences precisely because they were never intended for anyone else. One of her earliest fans was Jim Olsen of Northampton-based record label Signature Sounds.
“There was definitely a buzz about her on the Boston coffee circuit,” he says. “I liked the album a lot, but it wasn’t really until I saw her perform that I got it. She has a real charm and magnetism to her that attracted me as much as the music.”
Olsen signed McKenna to Signature for her sophomore record, Pieces of Me, and she began playing regionally and going on short tours. It’s always been something of a balancing act for the family. “To Gene,” she says, “it was, ‘This is inconvenient, but if she doesn’t do it, she’ll probably be unhappy, so we better make it work.’ And I think there’s still a little bit of that. I have to remind my kids and my husband that I actually do have a career. As you can tell right now, stuff needs to be done,” she adds as her three-year-old son David runs inside from swimming with his siblings. “But they shouldn’t have to worry about it, and I shouldn’t have to worry about it. They should just be kids.”
After a stripped-down album appropriately called The Kitchen Tapes, McKenna went back into the studio with a band to record Bittertown. It was the first record she didn’t have to raise money for up front, and it marked a turning point for her, both artistically and financially.
“When she made Bittertown,” says Olsen, “I felt like she was entering a territory where no one had been before. I kind of liken it to a female Springsteen—the blue-collar ethic coming from a woman’s point-of-view just has’t been explored that much in the past. We all knew when she finished Bittertown that it was going to be a really important record. We put it out and did our best with it, and it seemed like the ears of Nashville perked up.”
Those first set of Nashville ears belonged to Melanie Howard, widow of renowned country writer Harlan Howard. Her publishing company had just added songs from McKenna’s labelmate Mary Gauthier to her husband’s catalog. Gauthier told Howard about McKenna, and they listened to Bittertown online. “I couldn’t believe Lori didn’t have a publisher,”?Howard says. “I called Lori, and we chatted about her songs and publishing, her kids and life in general. We met shortly thereafter in Boston.”
“[Howard] said, ‘I wanna go back to Nashville and play songs for people,’” McKenna remembers of that first meeting. “And two weeks later, she called and said Faith [Hill] wanted to hear everything I’d ever written. So, of course, my husband was like, ‘That lady’s crazy. She’s on crack.’ And I thought ‘maybe he’s right,’ because Gene is so practical and the opposite of me—I’m the crazy dreamer and he’s as grounded as he could be. But I definitely thought, ‘That’s really nice, but nothing will ever come of it.’”
But Hill recorded four songs of McKenna’s, and three of them made it onto her most recent album, Fireflies, including the title track. Hill took McKenna under her wing, inviting her on Oprah, and Hill’s husband, Tim McGraw, signed McKenna to his StyleSonic label in partnership with Warner. As I sit with Lori in her home and David drags a box of Shrek-themed yogurt tubes to her before falling asleep on her shoulder, the family is preparing for the Soul2Soul Tour with McGraw and Hill, on which they’ll play arenas across North America.
It’s only been a month since the McKennas moved into their new house (among David’s first words after I entered were,“Can we go home now?”), and a little longer since Lori traded in her old Ford Windstar with 150,000 miles on it, many of them from touring. Lori, the four boys and her five-year-old daughter, Meghan, will hop on a tour bus with a nanny and drive from Omaha, Neb., up through Canada and back to Boston, playing venues with corporate monikers to hundreds of thousands of people. “I’ve been lucky enough to always have the kids jump on the ride with me,” she says. “I go away for four days at a time—tha’s my limit—and by the fourth day, I’m practically losing it. I’m back at the airport, wanting to steal a child from somebody else.”
Being on one of the biggest tours of the summer with kids in tow may be the only experience as surreal as her time on Oprah. Her first reaction was to think that the date of the taping was no good for her because it was the kids’ first day of school, but she quickly realized she’d be foolish to say no. “Faith sang ‘I Surrender All’ in rehearsal just to warm up her voice,” McKenna recalls.“And Oprah wasn’t there, but we were sobbing watching [Faith] warm up with her vocals. So the next day, Oprah asked her to sing the song. And if there’s anybody that sings better than that, spiritually, I don’t know who it is. It was like going to church, but it was better than going to church. And Opra’s holding my hand, and she’s singing, and she’s sobbing, and it’s like, ‘What’s happening to me? How did this happen?’ It was the strangest experience.
“And after all of that, they do photos. Oprah’s onstage with Faith, and then they said, ‘Oh, come on up and get your photo done!’ And Oprah was between Faith and I, and it was so strange because Oprah meant the photographer’s light, but she was pulling me closer to her and Faith, saying, ‘Stand in the light. Stand in the light.’ And I felt like ’d been born or something; it was the strangest thing. The whole day was filled with these highly emotional [moments]—we sang ‘fireflies’ twice that day because the first time, Faith was tearing up, and I was tearing up, and it’s hard to sing and cry at the same time. It was just this whole day of things that kept bringing me back to ‘How did I get here? How did I deserve this?’”
Olsen is thankful for the way McKenna has been thrust in the limelight, but he has a different take on the TV appearance. “I have to say, I found it a little strange—you know Oprah kind of sugarcoats everything, sort of like Faith Hill discovered Lori in her kitchen and discovered this great songwriter, belittling the fact that Lori had been at this for seven years. She’d been on the road, and she’d done a lot of great things. She’d played the Newport Folk Festival, the Sundance film Festival, won a bunch of awards, all of that. And yet it’s all sort of been airbrushed out of the story—I found [that] a little strange and a little distasteful, but I’m really glad that Lori got the recognition, and if it helps her break through, then I’ll feel better about it.”
At least in her hometown, it’s made her a celebrity. Last year, Stoughton High School inducted four alumni into its Hall of Fame. After the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, a chemist from the Manhattan Project and a renowned architect spoke, the 1987 graduate/songwriter thought to herself, “Shit. I don’t have a speech.” Then she thought back to her high school days and about her life now and delivered this understatement to the assembled students: “I almost didn’t know that this was what I wanted to do, because when you’re in high school, you don’t know sometimes.”
But there’s no doubt that she’s doing it. She has a new record out this month, Unglamorous, and the label is gearing up for another assault on Nashville, this time with McKenna as a performer. The album was produced by Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore, and includes a few songs co-written with other Nashville heavyweights, including Liz Rose and Mark D. Sanders. One of the most poignant is “Leaving This Life,” written with Sanders and sung from the perspective of McKenna’s mother, knowing that she was dying and knowing that her daughter was losing her. McKenna says that many of her songs, like “Paper Wings and Halo” and “Never Die Young” have been about her mother, whether consciously or not.
“I feel like the first record—every song was about my mom,” she says. “And in talking about it with other songwriters, I realized that she probably affected me more in being gone than maybe she would have if she were here. It’s so strange in a way, because I always had that strong feeling that she was watching me. If your mom is home in the kitchen and you’re going out to do something bad, you’re like, ‘She’s never gonna catch me.’ But in a way, I was kind of a good kid because I felt, like, the fear of God—I had this person who was obviously watching over me, so I couldn’t do something bad.”
The title track was a direct result of the Oprah appearance. Rose was in Stoughton; when she told her waitress that she was there to do some co-writing, the waitress said, “Oh my God, Lori McKenna? We all watched the Oprah show.”
“Liz called me,” says McKenna, “and said, ‘People think that you live in this beautiful house and that you have it all figured out, and they don’t know that David’s throwing food at us’—because God forbid I ever have a babysitter. She’s like, ‘We have to write a song about what your life is really like. It’s unglamorous—it’s the opposite of what people think it is.’
“And it’s so funny, it’s such a fun song to play, but my music has always been really important to me, and it always would be, no matter what, whether I was sitting here doing this or if nobody knew who I was and I was putting the kids to bed at night. But if I tried it [as a career] and I didn’t get anywhere—if at that first open mic, someone had told me I sucked—it wasn’t gonna kill me like it sometimes does to people, because I had these other things in my life that made me happy. So I always feel like if I hadn’t had [the children], I wouldn’t have had the guts to try, because if that was going to wreck me, it would’ve. But it couldn’t, because I had so much anyway. So it was like, ‘Oh, let’s give this a try, and if it doesn’t work, if people tell me I suck, I’ll never leave the house again and I’ll just sing to the kids.’ It’s funny because, at the end of the day, you still have to come home and make somebody a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and change a diaper. To them, i’s not like, ‘Oh, I should ask mom to make dinner, but she’s a songwriter.’ They don’t care!”
So her life has changed. I’m not the first one to give her a hard time about writing a line like, “They’re building up houses big enough to lose your love,” and then moving into a neighborhood she could’ve been singing about. (“We’re just careful not to lose the love,” she assures me, laughing.) And unlike the “one TV set, no cable” line from “Unglamorous,”?she admits the family is no longer cable-free. But when you’re raising five kids, age 3 to 18, and surrounded by a husband and father and siblings and nieces and nephews who’ve all stayed close by, it’s a little easier not to get caught up in the glitz of Nashville. Before our photo shoot, Meghan took full advantage of the hair-and-make-up artist, and David was jumping from the chair (which Lori advised me not to sit on—something about melted chocolate) to the couch. When we drove to the high school for more pictures, Lori got caught up in a discussion with the principal about Brian’s graduation. Even on a star-studded tour, her duties as a mother will be at least as demanding as her performances. And if she’s going to write a song tonight, it’s back to the kitchen table after all the kids have gone to sleep.