Album Review- Lori McKenna’s “The Tree”

Mother of five Lori McKenna from Stoughton, Massachusetts is saving country music. You no longer have any legitimate license to say, “Oh, I’ve heard the name. Isn’t she a songwriter or something?” and consider yourself and enlightened music fan. Brushing Lori McKenna off is brushing off one of the greatest living songwriters of our generation, right up there with whatever field of heavyweights you want to amass as challengers or contemporaries. Just as we mourn the loss of songwriters gone by and wonder aloud who will ever be capable of filling their shoes, future generations will say the same of Lori McKenna.

The shadows that beset even the best songwriters as behind-the-scenes players in popular music are no longer suitable to shroud Lori McKenna. Luckily her now two CMAs and two Grammy Awards have helped dispel some of the obscurity that surrounds those in her profession, but there’s still that sense that she’s a songwriter for others, even if she’s a well-regarded one, and one of the bright spots in the sea of mediocrity that is the mainstream. Oh, you mean Lori McKenna actually sings songs and releases records herself as well? Well yes. Yes she does.

If you wanted a keen insight into American life, you could burn a weekend weaving in and out of documentaries on middle America and small town sociology. Or you could put on Lori McKenna’s The Tree, and gain way more enlightenment into the emotional ties that make life in American households truly tick. Lori McKenna’s gift is the way she canonizes common people, the cycles of life, and soliloquizes the shifting of time as the most meaningful and eloquent elements living souls ever encounter. She exposes the mystique and meaning in simple duties, how when you make a meal or sweep a floor, it’s not a mundane chore unworthy of logging into memory, it’s one of the most sincere expressions of love, especially when it’s being performed by a mother.

Whether it’s the cutting of a frayed thread from a kitchen towel, flicking off a light switch in the hall, or taking inventory of a tinkerer’s cluttered workbench, Lori McKenna makes it all feel so poetic. This is us, and no, it’s not patently dull. It is all coded in the magic that is our lives, and it’s all delivered with biting clarity and a little bit of sorrow in understanding it’s all just a smaller part in a bigger picture—that we will become our parents, our children will become us, and the cycle of life continues as the paint of houses wears away, and wrinkles envelop our skin.

Taking the little thoughts that waft in and out of the mind of a busy mother every day and making them into mountains of insight and wisdom is how Lori McKenna has become one of the most respected songwriters in all of the mainstream, as well as an independent music demigod. There is no musical divide running down the middle of Lori McKenna’s music like there is the rest of the country business. She is a consensus candidate for crafting the songs that unite us all through universal human experiences. Man or woman, mother or father, conservative or liberal, capitalist or intellectual, we all suffer from the sorrows she exposes, and benefit from the wisdom she imparts.

Just like her Grammy-nominated last record The Bird and the Rifle from 2016, Lori McKenna’s new record The Tree was produced by Dave Cobb. Along with the insight into life it uncovers, The Tree confirms Lori McKenna’s prowess not just as a top-caliber songwriter, but as an incredibly prolific one, almost unfair in how she can craft such musical contributions from a kitchen table in a Boston suburb after the kids have gone to bed, while so many others struggle to turn in even one or two songs of the same caliber as they sweat behind an Ibanez and scratch at a legal pad for hours on end.

Lori McKenna’s role as a mother doesn’t burden her songwriting career, it enhances it. It’s the fertile soil from where her creativity springs. They say if you want something done, give it to a busy person, and nobody is more busy than a mother, and few if any are as productive without sacrificing quality as Lori McKenna. Selecting out the songs of The Tree and talking about them specifically almost feels unclean, like asking a mother who their favorite child is. All the songs of The Tree are special in their own little ways, while Dave Cobb’s touch and the work of the session players is worthy of the compositions, knowing how and when to get out of the way of Lori McKenna’s words, and when to rise to enhance them.

A mother first and a songwriter second, Lori McKenna makes for an inspiring listening experience, and an inspiring specimen of human resolve. If she can live out her dreams from a house Stoughton, Massachusetts, scratching out opportunities wherever she can between songwriting trips to Nashville and short-run tours and still turn in contributions like The Tree, then we all can find the perseverance of a mother to be the best for ourselves, and for all the others who depend on us.

9/10

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Purchase Lori McKenna’s The Tree