Lori McKenna knows that politics and social change are in the air but you’d have to look deep to find it in her music. It’s not because she’s not paying attention or that she doesn’t care. “Honest to God,” she insists, “I’m just not smart enough to write a political song.”
Anyone familiar with her work — she penned Tim McGraw’s hit “Humble and Kind” and co-wrote Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and “Happy People” — would dispute that, but for McKenna the only way she can process the political is to turn to the personal.
“When you can’t solve the bigger problems, you find a smaller one that you can control,” McKenna says. “The way I see things politically, and I think a lot of us do this, is I immediately think of my kids, I immediately think of the world that they’re living in, and I still see it as like, a kitchen emotion.”
With five kids, ages 14 to 29, the 49-year-old singer has plenty of material to draw from. Her changing relationship with them — and with her aging father — form the foundation of her new album, The Tree, out July 20.
As a songwriter, McKenna has a gift for turning domestic detail into universal truth — take “Humble and Kind.” Before it became a number one for McGraw, it began as a simple list of advice and life lessons for McKenna’s kids (“Hold the door, say please, say thank you/Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie…”). “I always teased them that they never listened to me, so I had to write it down,” she’s said of her inspiration.
On The Tree, she offers a sequel of sorts in the song “The Way Back Home,” speaking to a child now grown and gone from the nest: “If you feel like you’ve been lost, think of the backyard you came from/ That way you’ll always know the way back home.”
And on her single, “People Get Old,” she turns toward the other end of the life cycle, singing, “Every line on your face tells a story somebody knows/ That’s just how it goes/ You live long enough and the people you love get old”.
That song was the catalyst for her new collection, and almost became the album’s namesake, except, McKenna admits, “it’s a terrible title of a song, never mind the title of a record!” Instead, she drew from a tune she co-wrote with Natalie Hemby and Aaron Raitiere that was intended for the upcoming Bradley Cooper/ Lady Gaga remake of A Star Is Born. After “The Tree” was written, “we all wanted it for ourselves. We thought, ‘Do we have to turn it in to the movie people?’”
In the end, the tune, which resembles a lyrical version of the Shel Silverstein children’s classic The Giving Tree, didn’t make the cut for the film, but the themes of family and place and time passing hit the perfect note for McKenna.
This album, McKenna’s tenth, is produced by Dave Cobb (he’s worked with Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell among others) who also helmed her triple Grammy-nominated 2016 release The Bird and the Rifle — and it comes as she’s at the top of her game as a songwriter. In 2015 and 2016 she took home back-to-back song of the year awards (for “Girl Crush” and “Humble and Kind”) from the Country Music Association, a first for a woman.
But despite the success she’s enjoyed since McGraw and Faith Hill, who’s covered four of McKenna’s tunes, first started fighting over recording her songs 13 years ago (“They are my angels,” McKenna says of the couple. “I seriously, seriously am madly in love with both of them.”), she’s remained a little like “The Tree” in her song: “The tree grows where it’s planted/ Roots wide underneath/ No matter how many storms pass it/ The apple never falls far from the tree.”
McKenna has continued to live in her hometown of Stoughton, Massachusetts, where she can “watch my dad’s house from my house,” rather than making the move to Nashville. Instead, she visits Music City twice a month to write.
“I stay three days, two nights, and then I jump home,” she says. “It’s been very healthy for me to not live there. The fact that I just can’t always have a Nashville writing experience every day makes me appreciate it a little bit more. When I go down there, it’s still like magic to me.”