Lori McKenna

In 1996, a 27-year-old mother of three performed for the first time in her life, at an open-mic night in a Massachusetts coffeehouse. By her 30th birthday, she’d recorded an album and had debuted at the Newport Folk Festival; by her 35th, she’d cut three more LPs and was well on her way to becoming one of Nashville’s most in-demand songwriters.

Since then, she’s recorded eight more solo albums and penned dozens of songs for the biggest names in and around Music City. For those efforts, she’s received more public recognition than she – or anybody, let’s face it – could ever have imagined, including five Boston Music Awards, three Grammys, two CMA awards and one ACM award, not to mention 16 nominations for those prizes.

No, I’m not making this up. Hell, I’m not even exaggerating. Her name is Lori McKenna and her story is incredible enough to make even lifelong atheists believe in miracles.

Early years, Musical beginnings

Born Lorraine Giroux on December 22, 1968, McKenna was raised in the Boston suburb of Stoughton, where she lives to this day. Her mother died when she was seven years old, a theme she touches often in her songs, but McKenna remembers her playing piano in the family home while her father sang. She changed her last name to McKenna at age 19 when she married Gene McKenna, whom she met when they were third graders.

McKenna began playing guitar at 13 – inspired by her guitar-playing brother, who encouraged her to take lessons – but she was writing poetry several years before that, hoping to become a novelist. “I didn’t have the attention span,” she said in 2012 about discarding her early literary dreams. “The four-minute song is a long enough time period for me.” As soon as she learned her first three chords, she took the obvious next step – writing her own songs. Some of her first fully developed tunes were lullabies for her children, she’s said.

First performance, Debut album, Harland Howard Songs

Fast forward 14 years from the time her brother encouraged her to pick up the guitar. Again with his encouragement, McKenna went to an open-mic night at the Old Vienna Kaffeehaus in Westborough, Massachusetts, and played a few of her originals. Though it was her first public performance – ever – the event’s organizer, Gabriel Unger, heard her set and encouraged her to come back; he became her informal manager and booked shows for her at Club Passim and other area clubs over the next several years.

In 2000, Unger took on a formal management role and he remained in that position until 2004. During that time, McKenna recorded four albums; she self-released the first, Paper Wings Halo (2000), and Signature Sounds issued Pieces of Me (2001), The Kitchen Tapes (2004) and Bittertown (2004). By the end of 2003, her reputation as a sensationally gifted songsmith landed her a publishing deal with Harlan Howard Songs Inc., a highly respected firm in Nashville founded by legendary country tunesmith Harlan Howard and his wife Melanie in 1989.

Faith Hill, Fireflies

In 2004, then-35-year-old McKenna got the biggest break of her early career when Grammy-nominated folk singer Mary Gauthier introduced Bittertown to some of her Nashville friends, including Faith Hill who was putting the final touches on an album she’d just finished recording. Hill was so gobsmacked by what she heard on Bittertown that she returned to the studio to replace three existing tracks with her renditions of McKenna’s songs “Stealing Kisses,” “If You Ask” and “Fireflies,” the last of which became the album’s title track.

As if that wasn’t enough to launch McKenna’s career, Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw, invited her to join their 2006 North American tour, which included an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Warner Bros. Signing, Unglamorous

In 2007, McGraw’s miles-deep industry contacts helped 38-year-old McKenna get a deal with Warner Bros. Nashville, which reissued Bittertown that year as McKenna cut her first major-label release, Unglamorous. Reviews were mostly favorable including one in the Boston Globe that read, “The subtle twang that crept into the smart folk and finely wrought Americana on McKenna’s four previous albums has been shined up and sharpened, but the endeavor still feels natural.”

Sales were not favorable, however – the album and its singles failed to chart – and Warner Bros. and McKenna parted ways. “I decided that it didn’t make sense to make another record with Warner Bros.,” she said in 2012. “I knew that record wasn’t going to sell a million copies, even though there were some people over there that had faith that it could.”

Other solo albums, Collaborations, Charting songs

Since then, McKenna has recorded seven more solo albums on various labels: Lorraine (Signature Sounds, 2011), Massachusetts (1-2-3-4-GO!, 2013), Numbered Doors (Hoodie Songs, 2014), The Bird and the Rifle (CN Records, 2016), The Tree (CN Records/Thirty Tigers, 2018), The Balladeer (CN Records, 2020) and 1988 (CN Records, 2023). Former Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called The Balladeer “the most consistently top-notch album of her late-blooming career.”

Like fellow New Englanders Jim Rooney, Robert Ellis Orrall and Al Anderson, McKenna has proven in spades that someone raised far north of the Mason-Dixon line can find major success in Nashville as a songwriter. Since 2006, she’s penned tunes for a who’s who of top artists including Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Mandy Moore, Sara Evans, Vance Gilbert and Alison Krauss.

She’s written or co-written 10 songs that made the Billboard Hot Country Songs list, among them “Humble and Kind” (#1, Tim McGraw), “I Want Crazy” (#2, Hunter Hayes), “Stealing Kisses” (#36, Faith Hill) and Little Big Town’s versions of “Girl Crush” (#1), “Sober” (#27) and “Your Side of the Bed” (#90).

Songwriting partners, Awards

McKenna writes solo and together with songwriters Hillary Lindsay and Liz Roz; the trio wrote “Girl Crush,” the Little Big Town rendition of which was nominated for the Best Country Song and Song of the Year Grammys in 2016. That same year, the tune was named Song of the Year at the Country Music Association (CMA) awards and was nominated for Song of the Year at the Academy of Country Music (ACM) awards.

Also in 2016, Tim McGraw’s rendition of McKenna’s song “Humble and Kind” – which she said she wrote as “lullaby, guidebook, and tribute” to her five children – won Song of the Year at the CMA Awards and Favorite Country Song at the American Music Awards. In 2017, McKenna won a Grammy for Best Country Song for McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” and the song was nominated for Song of the Year and Single Record of the Year at the ACM Awards. Also that year, McKenna was named ACM’s Songwriter of the Year.

In 2018, she partnered with Lady Gaga, Natalie Hemby and Hillary Lindsey on “Always Remember Us This Way,” which was the released as the second single from the soundtrack for the 2018 film A Star Is Born. The song received a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year and McKenna, Hemby and Linsey sang backup vocals behind Lady Gaga at the ceremony.

In 2020, to encourage voting in the November US elections, McKenna cowrote “A Beautiful Noise” with seven other songwriters: Alicia Keys, Brandi Carlile, Hillary Lindsey, Ruby Amanfu, Hailey Whitter and Linda Perry. Keys and Carlile recorded the tune in an effort to inspire Americans to vote in that year’s November elections. In 2021, when Taylor Swift rerecorded her album Red (Taylor’s Version), she included the track “I Bet You Think About Me,” which she and McKenna had cowritten in 2011, a testimony to the timelessness of McKenna’s material.

Current activity, New York Times crossword clue

Throughout her career, McKenna has continued to call the Boston area her home, never making the move to Nashville because, she says, she prefers to remain outside the Music City bubble. She travels there often, of course, but remains deeply tied to the Norfolk County town in which she was raised and still lives, Stoughton. She still writes songs nonstop and makes regular solo appearances, and she’s said she’d like to work with a band again someday.

Asked what it’s like to have accomplished such a lot both on and off stage, McKenna mentioned the numerous times her first name has been part of New York Times crossword puzzles – most recently in May 2021 – with the clue being “Country Singer McKenna.”

“That’s when my father decided that I had made it,” she said.

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published On: December 8, 2023