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Lori McKenna Brings Plainspoken Modesty And Intimate Acoustics To 'The Tree'


This is FRESH AIR. Lori McKenna is a very successful country music songwriter. She's co-written big hits for Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Little Big Town and others. In 2017, she became the first woman to win songwriter of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Less well-known is the music Lori McKenna records herself. She's released 10 albums since 2000, and the new one is called "The Tree." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


LORI MCKENNA: (Singing) Well, here's what I know. Even when she's sleeping, she's still dreaming about you. That's the way that it goes.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's "A Mother Never Rests," and it's the way Lori McKenna kicks off her new album, "The Tree." In its quiet way, that song, about the work and rewards of motherhood, is an assertion of strong principles. McKenna prizes parenthood and domestic chores as worthy, rewarding labor. Take a line like, she's a stubborn believer that time and a clean house is how you heal. That is as far from any sentiment you'll hear in current pop music as is possible to imagine in 2018, and all the more valuable for it. So is McKenna's emphasis on the positive and the optimistic in the song, "Happy People."


MCKENNA: (Singing) Happy people don't cheat. Happy people don't lie. And they don't judge or hold a grudge. They don't criticize. Happy people don't hate. Happy people don't steal. All the hurt sure ain't worth the guilt they'd feel. So if you want to know the secret, you can't buy it. Got to make it. And you ain't ever going to be it by taking someone else's away. Never take it for granted. You don't have to understand it. Just do whatever puts a smile on your face. Whatever makes you happy people.

TUCKER: Toward the end of that song, McKenna sings, life is short and love is rare, and we all deserve to be happy while we're here. Her Golden Rule approach to life sounds inspirational in an unassuming way. McKenna's 2007 album was called "Unglamourous," which suits both McKenna's performing persona and her vocal style, which is assiduously unshowy and conversationally straightforward.

Working in an industry that idealizes youth, she likes to talk about grownups and their concerns. Her song, "People Get Old," has a James Taylor, "Sweet Baby James" vibe to its melody.


MCKENNA: (Singing) Someone said youth is wasted on the young. I spilled every last drop of time that summer in the sun. But Daddy had a Timex watch, cigarette in his hand and a mouthful of scotch, spinning me around Tilt-A-Whirl on his arm. Houses need paint. Winters bring snow. Kids, come on in before your supper gets cold. Collection plates and daddy's billfold, and that's how it goes. You live long enough, people get old.

TUCKER: A Massachusetts native who struck gold in country further south, McKenna found success doing co-writes, in the language of contemporary Nashville. Her collaborations, frequently with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose, are characterized by intricate emotional setups and clever verbal executions. McKenna, Lindsey and Rose, who refer to themselves as the Love Junkies, had perhaps their biggest hit with "Girl Crush," as recorded by Little Big Town. It's a song sung by a woman who describes her obsession with the woman who's currently with the man she loves. That kind of twist is something McKenna is fond of, and you can hear that sensibility at work here on a song such as "You Can't Break A Woman" with its chorus about the strength a woman can have in withholding her love.


MCKENNA: (Singing) Whiskey breath don't faze her anymore. She don't mind sleeping alone. She got over all of that a long, long time ago. Whiskey breath don't faze her anymore. She got wiser every time you lied, sobered up every time you got drunk. Every time you were stoned, she just got a little more numb. She pulled a little bit further away every time you walked out the door. No, you can't break a woman who don't love you anymore.

TUCKER: "The Tree" is produced by Dave Cobb, who has overseen big, booming hits for Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. But Cobb proves his range here by showcasing McKenna's plain-spoken modesty with similarly modest, subtle production. At another time in pop music, Lori McKenna would've been classified a folk singer, but in the current industry, the only place her intimate, acoustic-based music fits is in country music. Even so, her songs stand out. Tim McGraw had a hit with her tune "Humble And Kind," even as many listeners thought, humble and kind - now there's a couple of words you don't hear very often. If you want a whole collection of the kind of thing you don't hear very often these days, "The Tree" may be your kind of album.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "The Tree," the new album from country music songwriter Lori McKenna. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


JENNIFER EHLE: (As Dr. Lydia March) Your struggle is with the sin of same-sex attraction.

GROSS: The new film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post" is about a teenage girl who's sent to a residential gay-conversion therapy center. It's adapted from a novel by the same name. We'll speak with the book's author, Emily Danforth, and the film's director and co-writer, Desiree Akhavan. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


MCKENNA: (Singing) 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. The tree reaches up with its branches. Springtime comes blossoming. Early autumn, the leaves are dancing. And in the winter, there's wood for heat. I've tried leaving and being something I was never meant to be. And I've tried staying, ever-changing and standing in one place just like that tree. The tree keeps watch, always swaying, a silent friend remembering hidden secrets. Children play in the shade of its canopy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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