Lori McKenna’s fans aren’t the only ones who get choked up listening to her music: Sometimes McKenna writes songs that make her cry, too.
One of them is “When You’re My Age,” from the Stoughton singer and songwriter’s new album, “The Balladeer.” The song is a parental benediction about watching kids grow up, and mostly letting them go, in a complicated world, and McKenna sings over a catch-in-your-throat piano part. Inspired by something David Letterman said about his teenage son while interviewing Howard Stern, of all people, McKenna tinkered with the song on her own before taking it to her friends Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose during a co-writing session in pre-pandemic Nashville. When Lindsey suggested the hook — “You’re still gonna be my baby/ Even when you’re my age” — all three of them burst into tears.
“We all cried like babies,” says McKenna, 51, a mother of five, laughing at the memory. “I still get emotional about that song, because it’s close to my heart.”
The song is the centerpiece of “The Balladeer.” Recorded in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile), McKenna’s 11th album, like much of her previous work, is largely about family. That wasn’t intentional — in fact, McKenna wrote a couple of fictional, character-driven songs that had her thinking “The Balladeer” would go in a different direction. One, the title track, follows a singer of sad songs whose triumphant ascent is undermined by unexpected heartbreak. Another, “Two Birds,” is about a wife and a mistress who suddenly realize what — or whom — they have in common.
Yet when it came time to assemble the album, McKenna found that most of the songs were more personal. She sings about looking up to her sister on the aching “Marie,” her marriage of 30-plus years on the wry, lovingly exasperated “Good Fight,” and a composite of relatives and friends she wishes her children had gotten to know better, or at all, on “The Dream.”
“The records end up this way because I write so many other songs throughout the year that are for someone else in the room, or more general songs,” says McKenna, who performs a livestream album-release show Friday to benefit Club Passim in Cambridge. “But the ones that I want to sing every night are the ones that are completely self-absorbed.”
What she calls “self-absorbed” looks more like a unique take on real life to Boston folk singer Mark Erelli. He has known McKenna since meeting her at a songwriting competition in the now-shuttered Borders bookstore in Downtown Crossing around 1996 (neither of them won, he recalls).
“There’s this abiding sense of witness in her songs, these moments that maybe aren’t normally written about,” says Erelli, who has produced two of McKenna’s albums and often performs onstage with her (he’ll play with her on the album-release livestream). “I think people just feel seen when they hear her songs. They hear something that they have felt or experienced, but they don’t usually see celebrated.”
McKenna was 28 when she started singing at open mics and entering songwriting contests in the mid-‘90s. Soon she was casting around for a record label to release the growing number of songs she was writing, some of which started circulating in Nashville. Though McKenna first made a name for herself with frequent gigs at Club Passim, a venerable folk club, her music resonated so well in Nashville that the country stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw recorded a couple of her songs. That resulted in a breakthrough for McKenna, who wasn’t concerned about what genre labels got applied to her songs.
“Coming up in Boston, they called it folk music, and in Nashville, I know it’s more country, but I feel like Americana is a good name for what I do,” she says. “I write songs about people’s stories and that’s what I’m drawn to and that’s what Americana is about: It’s regular people’s stories sung into a song.”
She signed with a major label in Nashville and wrote tunes recorded by Little Big Town, Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, and plenty more. Now she’s an indie artist again, but with an expanding shelfful of awards, including a pair of Grammys for writing Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” (with Lindsey and Rose) and McGraw’s “Humble and Kind.”
“In the beginning, everything for so long was, ‘This could be the last time I get to do this,’ ” she says. “I’m finally at the point where I know, OK, I’m a songwriter. I get to do this for a living, I’m very thankful for it. I don’t want to miss a minute of it, but I feel like I’m confident enough in it now because I’ve put the work in.”
Sometimes it’s the work itself that makes her want to cry, but for different reasons than songs about her kids. “I want to be true to the song, I want to be true to the craft, but I know my limitations musically and, you know, intelligence-wise,” she says. “Sometimes that kind of overpowers me. It’s emotional to me that I get to still do this. It’s amazing.”
Lori McKenna performs a livestream fund-raiser concert July 24 at 8 p.m. to benefit Club Passim. The concert will stream on www.facebook.com/clubpassim and www.youtube.com/ClubPassim. Suggested donation, $40.
Follow Eric R. Danton on Twitter @erdanton