One can only imagine what Lori McKenna’s Massachusetts house must be like. She’s the mother of five. She’s also racked up so many trophies (Grammys, CMA, ACM, and AMA) that she must be hard pressed to find room for them all. Fresh off her 2016 Grammy nominated The Bird & The Rifle, McKenna tackles a subject she’s as well-versed in as anyone – family. Teaming again with fellow Grammy winner, producer Dave Cobb, The Tree marks McKenna’s eleventh studio album and second with Cobb.
McKenna’s stature can ensure such high profile folks as engineer Matt Ross-Spang and a studio band that includes Cobb (acoustic/electric guitar, mellotron), Anderson East (electric guitar), Brian Allen (bass), Chris McKenna (mellotron), Chris Powell (drums, percussion) and background vocals from those who did some of the co-writing – Kristen Rogers, Natalie Henby, and Hillary Lindsey.
Some of these songs are autobiographical. Others are taken from stories she’s heard; and still others are a combination of living and dreaming. McKenna comments, “I love people’s stories about their families – the way they tic and the ways we’re all crazy and love each other. I hope my songs shine a little light on that for a second. Maybe our stories remind us of our families and what they give us. It’s beautiful, and sometimes we take it for granted.” She goes on to say, “I got married at 19 and had my oldest at 20,” she says. “I didn’t grow up all the way before I started having children. I didn’t have a lot of time being an adult that was just me––I spent so much time worrying about someone else. So I do like to address how I feel about things, for sure, but I also like to think about what other people might feel, too.”
She begins appropriately with “A Mother Never Rests,” written with Barry Dean who created many of the lyrics while Lori was delayed longer than anticipated at her daughter’s softball game. The title track, as you may have guessed, is taken from the popular children’s book, The Giving Tree, meaning that the family is continually giving as indicated in the chorus lines “I’ve tried leaving and being/Something I was never meant to, be/And I’ve tried staying, ever changing/And standing in one place/Just like that tree.” It is also a co-write, this time with Natalie Henby and Aaron Raitiere. McKenna penned with frequent collaborators Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey the defiant “You Can’t Break a Woman” and the closer, “Like Patsy Would,” that combines a longing for singing like Patsy Cline with a desire to write like Hemingway.
“Young and Angry” is a fine depiction of teenage years with a melody in the chorus reminiscent, purely coincidentally since it has no relation to Patterson Hood’s (of the Drive-By Truckers) “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues.” Maybe because the “angry” rhymes with “Tammy.” Lest I digress, McKenna wrote the tune with Barry Dean and Luke Laird. Laird also wrote “The Way Back Home,” which has become the title for her tour, signifying a moving list of guideposts to ensure your identity remains intact. “Happy People,” co-written with Haley Whitters, encourages us to pursue whatever brings joy. Like so many of these songs, it is refreshing in the context of so many singer-songwriters who dwell on dark songs.
McKenna’s four solo writes are equally as strong and communicate the smallest details that make marriage and family work. For example, “The Fixer” is for her husband. Here’s an excerpt – “’Are you cold?’ he says feeling her hand/Leaves ginger ale on her nightstand/She’s too tired to take a sip/So the fixer finds something to fix.” In a similar vein, she turns the table on describing her responsibilities, given that she is the one that travels, in “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone.” An example – “I sweep the dirt that the dogs brought in/I let ‘em out and then sweep again/And while the sun is going our way/I’ll turn off the nightlight in the hallway.”
Her strongest vocal performance is on “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s,” its title and Catholic imagery that evokes Springsteen’s “My Home Town.” Bruce may be the only other songwriter who can detail the lust of pubescent teens taking risks as well as McKenna. Similarly, the very common observations that many of us make is explored in “People Get Old,” a tune about her and her husband’s fathers. These lines could be echoed by almost any of us. Leave it to McKenna to say it so well – “Daddy keeps busy in the afternoons playing cards by himself/And he shouldn’t be shoveling that first snow but you know he won’t take the help/Full of pride and love, he don’t say too much, but hell, he never did/You still think he’s 45 and he still thinks that you’re a kid.”
This album is replete with candid observations about life, seen through the lens of one of our most gifted songwriters. McKenna’s built a career of making hit songs for others, but her talents shine even more brightly when she makes her own records.