It almost feels like shortchanging Lori McKenna to call her a singer/songwriter. Storyteller doesn’t seem quite sufficient either.
She is both of those things, of course. But McKenna—a Massachusetts resident and Nashville heavyweight, thanks to hits she’s penned for Tim McGraw, Little Big Town and others—has long written songs that paint more vivid, more detailed, more dynamic pictures of daily existence than just about anyone else. Perhaps it’s more accurate to call her a documentarian of humanity, or an interpreter of the human experience. Put simply, she is one of Music City’s most in-demand songwriters precisely because of her priceless ability to write about people in a way that appeals to people.
McKenna showcases that skill all over her 11th solo album, The Balladeer, while also mining the same rich vein of inspiration—family—she explored on her most recent album, 2018’s The Tree. But where The Tree hinted at unease within domesticity and the ever-quickening passage of time, she sounds much more comfortable with those topics on her new album. At McKenna’s stage of life, with her elders in their twilight and children heading out on their own, a significant shift in perspective is no surprise, even in the span of just a couple of years.
It’s probably no coincidence, then, that The Balladeer is also McKenna’s most upbeat album in recent memory. Where 2016’s The Bird & The Rifle teemed with broken people and broken relationships and The Tree was slower and more somber, these 10 new songs feel lighter and brighter, buoyed by personal reflection and the joy of familial connection. The album’s second single, “Good Fight,” is a particularly sunny jangle-twang-pop tune about the hard work of making a marriage last. As always, McKenna has an eye for detail: “Whatever you do, don’t make me laugh,” she sings over the warm strum of an acoustic guitar, “‘cause you ain’t gonna win.” It’s a relatable tune anyway, but that’s a line that will really resonate with anyone who’s been there before.
McKenna co-wrote “Good Fight” with her longtime partners Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose (collectively, the trio is known as the Love Junkies), and the same goes for “Two Birds,” a sprightly and cleverly written song about a love triangle that falls apart. The other Love Junkies number is “When You’re My Age,” a striking piano-driven ballad built around McKenna’s hopes for her kids’ (and, someday, her grandkids’) future. It’s the kind of song that could come off as treacly in less capable hands, but McKenna imbues it with the generous tenderness of a seasoned parent: “They’ll outgrow their shoes. They’ll outgrow their beds. They’ll outgrow that house and you can’t stop it,” she sings, her voice nearly cracking with emotion.
The rest of the songs on The Balladeer are credited solely to McKenna, and they find her looking backward and forward with equal zeal. “The Dream” imagines a meeting between a living child and a departed relative as it builds from a standard folk tune into a beautiful instrumental passage that gives the album some needed sonic variety. The singsong melody of “Marie” carries McKenna’s ode to her older sister and their journey together since their mother’s death when they were children. It is, as you might expect, both heartbreaking and heart-bursting. Elsewhere, “Stuck in High School” and “‘Till You’re Grown” contemplate the promise of youth and the wisdom of age in their own distinctive ways: The former is a ringing Indigo Girls-style folk-rocker, while the latter recalls some of Brandi Carlile’s widescreen ballads. “Time moves faster than you think,” McKenna sings in “‘Till You’re Grown,” just before the song ascends into its dramatic coda. “You just can’t see it when you’re young.”
Turns out those are the final lyrics on The Balladeer, and appropriately so, because that’s the kind of thing you truly understand when you’ve been around for a while, living and loving and learning. That’s where Lori McKenna is in life, and we’re lucky she’s blessed with a world-class gift for setting wisdom to song.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.