Lori McKenna — Birchmere
Lori McKenna is one of those songwriters who specializes in three- and four-minute novels, her lyrics so full of real-life details that transport you to the places she wants you to go. Seeing her in concert, you also get the audio version of a reader’s guide that takes you behind the scenes.
McKenna, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter and member of the hit-making Love Junkies, brought her “Two Birds Tour” to The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., last week. Playing her trademark acoustic guitar with a crack five-piece band, five of the 15 songs McKenna performed are from her latest album, “The Balladeer.”
“It’s a whole bunch of sad songs. Don’t take them personally,” she said.
Opening with the title cut from that record, she moved into “People Get Old” and “Happy People” from 2018’s The Tree. On the latter cut, which became a hit for Little Big Town, she noted that Hailey Whitters came to her Massachusetts home and said she wanted to write a song about “happy people,” which is not typically McKenna’s musical forte.
“I asked her why, and Hailey said, ‘Happy people don’t cheat. Happy people don’t lie’,” McKenna recalled, quoting the first two lines of the song. “One of the things that makes me such a good co-writer is that I just say, ‘That’s good. Let’s go with that.’”
Following a haunting version of “The Bird and the Rifle,” McKenna says she’s “very happy in life even if the songs aren’t” and segued into “Uphill,” a tune from The Balladeer that is for “friends who don’t know how to ask for help.”
At this point, McKenna started talking about her work with fellow Love Junkies Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose. McKenna said Rose taught her the art of co-writing after she got her first publishing deal and started traveling back and forth to Nashville in 2005. She then performed the Love Junkies’ biggest hit, “Girl Crush,” which was covered by Little Big Town and won the “Best Country Song” Grammy in 2016.
Later, McKenna played two additional co-writes, the Love Junkies hit “Sober” and The Highwomen’s “Crowded Table,” which she penned with Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carlisle. The latter song prompted another humorous anecdote.
“I showed up at Natalie’s house and made her husband feed me dinner because I was starving,” McKenna said. “Natalie said she wanted to write a song called ‘Crowded Table’ and I said sure. ‘Happy People’ confused me, but a crowded table is something I know.”
McKenna still lives in Stoughton, Mass., with her husband of 33 years. The couple, who married a year after graduating from high school, have five children and live down the street from McKenna’s father. Her mother died when she was 7, a tragedy addressed in The Balladeer song “Marie” about her sister.
The last two songs and the encore all were about family and getting older. McKenna said she wrote more than ever over Zoom during Covid, noting that it helps that her children “are all sort of self-sufficient, even if the ‘sort of’ never goes away.”
The last song of the 90-minute main set was “Witness to Your Life,” from McKenna’s major label, Tim McGraw-produced debut “Unglamorous.” More of an anthem than the quiet, piercing songs she normally plays, it is about the benefits and challenges of a long-term marriage.
Bookending that song were two pieces written about parenting — “Humble and Kind” and the encore song, the lovely and honest “Even When You’re My Age” from “The Balladeer.”
The writing of “Humble and Kind” produced one last story from McKenna, whose youngest child was 10 at the time (he’s now 17).
“I wrote that song at my kitchen table, recorded it into my phone and sent it to Tim McGraw,” she said. “My kids know when they find me in the same spot in the same clothes that, ‘Oh, mom wrote another song. Now what’s for dinner?’ I think it was spaghetti night.”
She couldn’t get them to listen to her new song, which won her a Grammy after Tim McGraw recorded. “Now that Tim McGraw sings it they pay attention to the song I wrote about them,’ she said, laughing.
Opening for McKenna was her frequent guitarist and collaborator Mark Erelli, who is finally touring behind his latest album, “Blindsided.” Erelli played solo in front of a large picture of his album cover, part of an attempt by The Birchmere to liven up its staging.
“It’s not every day that you get to perform in front of a really big picture of yourself, but I appreciate it,” Erelli said.
Like other artists I’ve seen this summer, Erelli was particularly grateful to be on the road again. His album came out on March 27, 2020 just as Covid hit. The ironic title, he said, wasn’t planned; “Blindsided” is a love song.
Erelli said he and McKenna have been friends since the late 1990s, when they both lost in the same songwriting competition. Calling her his “folk sister,” he said they wrote a song together via Zoom during the pandemic.
“I don’t think I would still be doing this if not for her,” he said.
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