She rests the acoustic guitar on her lap, the tuning pegs sparkling like jewels under the floodlights. Her eyes are shut. She rocks gently back and forth, listening. Soon it will be her turn to play. But Lori McKenna still can't fully accept that she belongs here.
On this Friday night in late January, McKenna is sitting in a circle with three other songwriters at the center of the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, a legendary storefront venue where, if you're lucky, you might witness magic. The 100 or so people sitting in rapt silence wouldn't trade their seats for anything.
"How did we get here?" McKenna says to Barry Dean, a friend, collaborator, and fellow performer at this songwriters' round. "How did this happen?" She looks at the others in the circle – Nashville standouts Kim Carnes and Matraca Berg – and marvels at playing in their company. "I worship these people," she says, and not in a whisper. Everyone can hear her.
Then McKenna wraps her slight frame around the guitar and begins to strum. Her distinctive voice, alternately soft and biting, fills the room, fills all of it, demanding attention. She is playing "Your Next Lover," from her 2007 album, one of many arresting folk hymns straight from the great big beating heart of this Stoughton girl, who had five kids with the boy she met in third grade, honed her songwriting skills in the kitchen, found the courage to play gigs, and never looked back.
Everyone's faces seem to bear the same message: Oh yeah, honey, you belong here all right. "You're like a postmodern Loretta Lynn!" Berg tells her, comparing McKenna to the pioneering songstress who pushed the boundaries of what women were supposed to sing about. Carnes is rendered nearly speechless after McKenna and Dean sing a showstopping new piece called "Halfway Home." She has this room in the palm of her hand.
Not that she would admit it. For McKenna, 43, self-deprecation has long been her nature. The I'm-no-good shtick, though, gets crazier every day. Fifteen years after she broke into the Boston folk scene with her raw, honest lyrics and unique vocal style, her songs keep getting better and keep blowing people away. Even longtime collaborators, family members, and fans can't make it through certain ones without choking up, if not weeping.
The power of McKenna's music lies in her artful pairing of intimacy and universality. With her own experience as a template, she explores and dignifies the many corners of domestic life, the hopes of small-town dreamers, and the emotional voids that aren't easily filled. McKenna, whose mother died young, is especially moving when she's wrestling with that wounding loss.
She hit the big time as a songwriter seven years ago, when superstar Faith Hill recorded three of her songs, putting her on the country music map. She landed on Oprah, was groomed to be the next big thing in Nashville, and released her own record on Warner Bros. Now, she's settling into a new phase of her career, and it may be her most promising one yet. After parting ways with the label, she's back in control of her performing and recording. But it's her songwriting work that is truly flowering. The novelty factor – Hey, look, a housewife from Boston with her own tunes! – has faded. What endures is the quality of her writing, which is drawing more and more attention.
The biggest names in country and bluegrass have cut her stuff, from Tim McGraw and Sara Evans to Alison Krauss and Carrie Underwood, and more are knocking at her door. McKenna co-wrote and recorded a song for the soundtrack of the new movie Act of Valor. Country megastars such as Keith Urban and Taylor Swift count themselves as huge fans. Swift, who paid McKenna a visit in Stoughton last summer, told the New Yorker that she wants to be Lori McKenna when she grows up. "She's right on the verge of major songwriting success with a lot of artists," says Pat Higdon, who was president, until recently, of McKenna's publishing company, Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville. "I've been around songwriters for almost 40 years. To me, Lori is as good as anybody I've ever worked with."
And it's not even her primary gig. McKenna toggles between her music and job number one: a mom with a daughter and two sons still in school in Stoughton, a balancing act at once familiar to any working parent and unique to her. She typically will not travel for more than a few days in a row. She tweets pictures of homemade white bread and raves about retail stores ("Honest to God Restoration Hardware I love you so much it hurts"). She laments her lackluster food-planning skills ("I go to the grocery story every day; I admit it," she tells the crowd at a recent show).
After making breakfast, packing lunches, and dropping her children off at school in her Toyota minivan, she turns to music. Sometimes she can't even wait that long. One newer song, a love letter to Stoughton called "Buy This Town," came to her at a stoplight in Stoughton Center on her way home from a school drop-off. She sang the idea into her iPhone in front of Town Hall and polished it at home once the kids were gone. The faucet, it seems, never stops running. Every house, she has said, has a story. And there are a lot of houses.
Her voice can cut like a knife's edge, swoop like a fiddle, or shrink to a plaintive whisper. Her songs will break your heart, compel you to hug your children, or remind you that time passes, and fast. Her story, her whole being, is both an inspiration and an affirmation of the mundane. "My kids are like, 'That's her? That's Lori McKenna?' " says Tina Doucette, McKenna's best friend growing up, remembering the time they saw her at Target. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, it's Lori. She shops like a regular person. She's a mom like I am.' " McKenna didn't call her 2007 album Unglamorous for nothing.
The singer-songwriter, who has long brown hair, big, blue eyes, and stands 5-foot-2, is a study in contrasts. A huge talent who is almost bashfully modest. A Stoughton townie who's at a pizza joint with friends and family one night, and then welcomed the next in Nashville like a hometown girl. She slips seamlessly from a Boston accent into a kind of borrowed Southern tongue.
And yet she has never drawn many boundaries between her life as a suburban mom and her life in music. One minute she's trading music-industry gossip, the next she's wondering how to hide vegetables in her 7-year-old son's food. Her family, her relationships, her community – these are the things that provide sustenance, emotionally and lyrically. "The motherhood and the career have fed off each other," she says. McKenna also prizes people with good hearts and leads by example. "She is probably the most lovable person I've ever worked with," says Lorne Entress, a Connecticut-based producer and musician who oversaw her 2004 album, Bittertown.
McKenna's cheery disposition, though, belies the hardship, heartbreak, and uncertainty that often drive her songs. Many who heard her music before knowing her assumed her life was a wreck. "You think before you meet her, 'God, this woman must be a tortured soul filled with demons,' " says Whitney Williams, the creative director at McKenna's Nashville publishing company. "And you meet her and she's happily married and she has five beautiful children." McKenna's penchant for sad material has become a running joke among fellow songwriters.
Not all her songs are purely autobiographical. She sprinkles in spiritual imagination, stories she overhears, snippets from others' struggles. But she often draws from her life – a momentary act of neglect from her husband; the challenges of sustaining a young marriage; or the longing to know her mother. And it's right out there, with no varnish, no abstractions, no safe distance. In the song "Leaving This Life," McKenna sings of her mom: "She's left with that reflection of me at 6 years old / And I have her eyes in the mirror / Well, she and I we are defined by what we have lost / Don't you wonder whose loss is dearer." Matt Smith, who is the managing director at Club Passim in Cambridge and has known McKenna for years, says: "There are plenty of songwriters that I would put on the same level as brilliant writers. But there's something so intimate and raw about what she's doing that makes it different."
Given how personal her songs are, I ask McKenna if her husband, Gene, knew what he was in for when they got married. "He still has no idea!" she says with a laugh. "I know, the poor guy." That's partly why he doesn't come to shows much. It's also because someone has to stay with the kids. (Gene, a plumber with Columbia Gas in Brockton, declined to be interviewed.)
McKenna and her husband have an inside joke about all this, drawn from the 2007 comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, in which John C. Reilly plays a singer trying to hit it big. In one scene, Reilly's wife is leaving him for being unfaithful, which he suggests is no worse than her own offense: that time she drank all the milk in the middle of the night, leaving none for his morning corn flakes.
"So you're innocent and I'm guilty? Guilty as charged?" he says. Then he pauses, thinking the line sounds pretty good, and repeats it in a singing voice.
"Don't you dare write a song right now!" his wife hollers.
When Gene sees his wife's eyes light up at something going on at home, he'll say, "Don't Dewey Cox this right now." McKenna turns serious to say she is immensely grateful for his understanding and support. "I wouldn't be able to do my job if he was sensitive to stuff like that," she says.
What makes it more palatable, perhaps, is the undercurrent of hope that runs through McKenna's music, even the melancholy fare. She celebrates the sweet romance of the familiar. She dances to the rhythms of a settled life. And she makes clear that there's no place she'd rather be. "Most songs," she says, "are love songs in some way, shape, or form." The love might not always be pretty. It may not be perfectly linear. But it's real.
Frank and Lorraine Giroux had four boys and a girl. They'd moved from Jamaica Plain to a modest Stoughton ranch house as their family grew. Now another baby was on the way. This time, because Lorraine was ill, the prognosis was uncertain. Referred to a doctor who specialized in high-risk pregnancies, they made an appointment at his Brookline office. Frank dropped his wife off and drove to nearby Jamaica Pond to wait, listening to music in his car as Lorraine told the doctor they wanted to go ahead with the pregnancy, risks and all.
Their baby girl was born in December 1968. They named her Lorraine, after her mother. They called her Lori. The baby of the family.
The Girouxes helped anchor a tight neighborhood of working-class families called Sumner Gardens. They attended Mass at nearby Our Lady of the Rosary Parish. Their house pulsed with music. McKenna's mother played piano and sang in the choir. Frank Giroux, who worked 43 years at Boston Edison, also loved to sing, and to tell stories. McKenna remembers him belting out "Man of La Mancha" while vacuuming. Her siblings played piano and guitar.
McKenna and Tina Doucette would sit and talk for hours on tree branches. Later they worked a paper route together, putting the tip money toward Twizzlers and Whatchamacallits. Doucette remembers McKenna's mother always cutting up oranges for their snacks, and how her roast beef filled the Giroux house with the most wonderful smell. And then, when McKenna was 7, everything changed. Her mother died of complications from a blood disorder. The family pulled together.
McKenna's brothers helped cook meals and take her to school. She and her dad played Mille Bornes, a card game, every night after dinner. "She was, in a way, closer to me than the others were," her father says. "Because maybe she needed it more." As a girl, McKenna had a recurring dream that her mother guided her station wagon into the driveway and began unloading groceries, like she had never been gone.
Growing up, McKenna wrote poetry, and her writing stood out to family and friends. She credits her brother Richard with turning her on to the guitar, although he downplays his influence. She took note of her maternal grandmother, who wanted to be a dancer but never got the chance. "You could tell she didn't get to do something she loved, other than having her kids," McKenna says. "That kind of always stuck with me."
McKenna graduated from Stoughton High School in 1987 – describing herself as "sensitive" and "impatient" in the yearbook – and briefly attended community college. She got pregnant, dropped out, and married Gene, a kid from the neighborhood whose good heart reminded her of her father. She worked office jobs at a brother's adhesive company and sold Tupperware. She and Gene had three sons within five years and began building their life together in a little house with a side yard where two apple trees wrapped around each other.
She sang to her kids, in the kitchen, and at her oldest son Brian's preschool. In second grade, Brian's class was reading a book about Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old African-American girl who helped integrate the New Orleans public schools in 1960. McKenna wrote and recorded a song about Bridges, "Ruby's Shoes," for her son's biography report. Brian played the recording for his class and "karaoked over my mom's own words," he says. (She later included the song on her first album.) "It was great growing up in it," Brian says now, hoping to follow his mother's example as a songwriter. "I wouldn't trade it for the world."
In the mid-1990s, when McKenna was about 27, her family urged her to brave an open-mike event or two. She felt she had little to lose. "I knew that at the end of the day I had these kids, that no matter what happened, they were still going to love me," she says. "And I could still sit in the kitchen and play my guitar while they were playing blocks on the floor."
One night she built up the courage to play the Old Vienna Kaffeehaus in Westborough, a well-regarded former folk venue that hosted open-mike night on Thursdays. Her family came. Her brother Richard lent his guitar. As she waited her turn, her nerves raged. "I was freaking out," she says. "I remember physically, like, I'm having a seizure." She played a couple songs and got hugs from her family. But they were biased. What did they know?
When they went to leave, the guy who ran the events, Robert Haigh, came down the stairs after her with a simple message: You should come back. She was floored. "I was like, 'That guy just walked down like 30 stairs to tell me that,' "
she remembers. Haigh says now, "When somebody really shined, you knew it right away. . . . I didn't want her to be one of the people I didn't see again." It was just the vote of confidence McKenna needed. She returned several weeks later, and Haigh, who had deep ties in the folk scene, became an early mentor and informal manager.
McKenna released her first album, Paper Wings and Halo, in 1998 and got a foot in the door at Club Passim, the storied Harvard Square folk club. Word started getting around. Shows began selling out. She couldn't believe it. Festivals called, more gigs came, and she matured as a songwriter and performer. More albums followed, notably 2004's Bittertown, which sounded a bit more country and rocked a little harder. Her fan base grew. But so did her responsibilities at home, now that she and Gene had two more children. "There were many times where she didn't do things that would have been good for her career, because she couldn't break away from her family," Entress says.
The first time Frank Giroux heard his daughter on the radio, he was in a special place. He had dropped her off at the studios of the Emerson College radio station, WERS, where she had a gig playing on air. Then he drove over to Jamaica Pond, parked his car, and listened.
Nashville, in the words of one music executive, craves "the fresh cookie" – the hot thing right out of the oven that no one's tasted yet. That was Lori McKenna circa 2004, when friends and boosters got her music in front of Faith Hill. Hill, after she heard McKenna's stuff, ripped up a nearly done record, returned to the studio to record a handful of McKenna's songs, and released a hugely successful 2005 album named after one of them, "Fireflies."
McKenna's life quickly changed. The lords of country music came calling. She signed a record deal with Warner Bros. in 2005 and was an irresistible story to the TV networks. She opened for Hill and Hill's husband, Tim McGraw, on a cross-country tour in 2007, playing to thousands in massive arenas and traveling in a bus previously used by Ricky Martin.
Royalty checks were suddenly covering a lot more than groceries – indeed, she and her husband bought a new house in a nice subdivision, took their kids to Disney World, and bought a new minivan. McKenna's former publisher, Melanie Howard, recalls once handing her a big white envelope. McKenna, according to Howard, said, "Oh my God, are these my termination papers? Are you not happy with me?" Not exactly. The envelope held her first royalty check, in the six figures. McKenna started to cry.
The success, inevitably, sparked fears that McKenna would be watered down by the commercial music machine. With Unglamorous, her 2007 album on Warner Bros. and her fifth overall, McKenna says the label let her make the record she wanted to make. The result won widespread praise, although it proved difficult to both please folk lovers and attract legions of new country-inclined listeners. Some fans and reviewers lamented the slicker production; Kelefa Sanneh, writing in The New York Times, said, "Sometimes it sounds as if Ms. McKenna's voice has been slightly blunted by the warm arrangements." In the mainstream country world, her songs at times drew puzzled looks. "My husband says the nice way of saying it is they'll say . . . 'I just don't get Lori McKenna. I just don't get it,' " Mc-Kenna says. Ultimately, Unglamorous didn't sell enough by commercial music standards – about 31,000 to date – to fully satisfy the label, and they parted amicably.
The burst of fame served a lasting purpose, though, exposing a broader audience to McKenna's music. (Hill and McGraw have remained among her biggest champions.) As a result, she's reached a new, and seemingly ideal, phase of her career: as a sought-after writer whose songs can travel the world even when she isn't willing to, and as a musician who can play shows and put out albums at her own pace. Last year, she self-released a deeply personal sixth album, Lorraine. This year, she's considering putting out another full-length record and also perhaps a collection of what she calls her "favorite creepy Lori McKenna songs that no one else is going to like."
As a songwriter, the trick is to get your stuff cut by major artists. This brings attention, and, if a song becomes a hit, handsome royalties. For all of the creative genius in Nashville, there's a lot of factory songwriting, too, with inoffensive pop music churned out for radio consumption. That's never been Lori McKenna. She doesn't make widgets. It's difficult for her to write something she hasn't felt. But she has, after some initial skepticism, grown more comfortable co-writing with others in different styles than many folkies might be.
McKenna is increasingly in demand as a collaborator and writer and has songs in the works with the likes of McGraw and Wynonna Judd. Alison Krauss's stirring rendition of McKenna's "My Love Follows You Where You Go" is currently the single from Krauss's 2011 album Paper Airplane, which just won a Grammy Award. "It's very rare for somebody who doesn't live in Nashville to succeed like she has," says Luke Laird, a friend and occasional co-writer with nine number one country hits to his name.
She regularly brings songwriters to her Stoughton home, and they write in a basement office she calls Boy in a Hoodie Studio, affectionately known as Hoodieland. Songwriting hours fall between school drop-off and pickup, with a firm clock-out time of 2:35 p.m. She almost always takes writers to a nearby Panera for lunch. Sometimes they'll accompany McKenna to school in the minivan, and then stick around to hang out with the family in the evening. It's an immersive experience. Their lives, briefly, become a Lori McKenna song, too.
McKenna also works remotely with writers and artists over Skype, trading ideas, guitar licks, and vocal parts. They exchange songs and tracks, recorded on Macs and iPhones, over e-mail. And then about once a month, McKenna catches an early morning flight to spend a few days in Nashville. Barry Dean, the friend and collaborator, says that to work well with McKenna, songwriters have to be as honest as she is, or at least try. "That's the price of entry," he says.
On a recent Thursday morning, McKenna is perched on a couch in a writing room at Universal's Nashville office, where they call her "Boo." She opens her laptop to play a guitar riff she recorded at home, so she can re-create it. But first she must tune out the high-pitched yap from Bella, her new Chihuahua, in the background. "It sounds like a chimpanzee," she says. She's here for a songwriting session with the band Little Big Town, a four-time Grammy nominee. The group's four members arrive before lunch. One of them, Karen Fairchild, comes with a melody. McKenna has an idea for some lyrics, involving the emotional distance that can grow between spouses. With those two elements, they begin assembling the scaffolding of a new song.
At first, it's hardly clear this will end up anywhere. Over the next five hours, though, they refine the lyrics and the music. McKenna, tapping her black boot on the plaid carpet, is unassuming and complimentary, rewarding others' ideas with "I love that!" But it is she who often cuts through with a thought that stops everyone cold. At one point, she shoots down a proposed lyric because it conveys "the wrong kind of desperate." She wants emotional precision. The song has to ring absolutely true.
By late afternoon, they are recording a rough demo of the song, tentatively called "Your Side of the Bed," which sounds marvelous rendered in Little Big Town's four-part harmony. Someone suggests it's radio-friendly. "I think we just saved a bunch of marriages," McKenna says, "which is all I care about." Who knows what the song's future holds, but for the moment, it smells an awful lot like a fresh cookie.
The question everyone has is this: How much dough does Mc-Kenna have in her kitchen? "From her very first record to now, she's made my jaw drop more times than any other songwriter," says Mary Gauthier, a friend and former Boston singer-songwriter who first got McKenna heard in Nashville. Mc-
Kenna says she does get stuck sometimes, but she can't imagine running out of material. "You wonder where she gets it," says her 77-year-old father. "It just awes me. And I sit there and I have a little anxiety about it when something new is played I haven't heard before – you know, 'Hope it's good! Hope it's good!' I'm never disappointed."
Mark Erelli has been there through it all. An A-list Boston singer-songwriter in his own right, he has been McKenna's sideman for years. He knows her well enough to anticipate when she's about to screw up lyrics onstage, and he adjusts to sing the wrong ones, too. Like everyone in her orbit, Erelli treasures his time with her. He was bothered by the simplistic narrative of McKenna's sudden fame – the notion that Faith Hill had plucked her from obscurity, as if she got lucky. As if it could happen to anyone. He calls this the "lottery myth." In truth, McKenna had steadily built a huge following in the Northeast, charming concertgoers with her songs and her disarming banter about life in Stoughton. She'd been blessed with an incredible gift. She had worked hard at her craft.
And yet McKenna's arc still holds inspiration for anybody carrying around dreams of their own. It's a message she captures elegantly in "Fireflies," the song that helped make her career: Those flashes of gold on summer evenings hold magic if you let them.
The Bluebird show is winding down after nearly three hours. Mc-Kenna ends her set with "Sweet Disposition," from last year's album, singing: "My mother left me a wedding band and impossible shoes to fill / Something I've always tried to do but I know I never will."
As I watch the audience and reflect on all that she balances, I can't help but think how off base that lyric sounds. If Lorraine Giroux isn't proud of this, wherever she is, what could she be proud of?
The patrons finish their drinks, pay up, and file outside into the cold night. McKenna lingers inside for a while, nursing a Southern Comfort on the rocks with the help of a fellow songwriter. She doesn't make it back to her hotel until around 1:30 a.m.
In the morning, we're booked on the same flight back to Boston. I look for McKenna when I arrive at the gate in the Nashville airport, but I don't see her. Then I get a text message.
"Good morning!" she writes. "I snuck on the plane before you."
"Good," I reply. "Was worried you were asleep."
No chance, she says. "I never miss a flight back home!!!"
Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @swhelman.