Lori McKenna – 1988
I was listening to Lori McKenna’s new album, 1988, at the same time that the latest Jason Aldean controversy was filling up Twitter, and it occurred to me that McKenna and Aldean (and the latter’s medium-sized village of songwriters) could not have more diametrically opposed views of small towns and the lives that they hold. While Aldean’s mythical hamlet is full of guns, threats and lots of sundown town-lovin’ white folks, McKenna’s neighbors are doing nothing more grand than facing the ups and downs, the family moments and the inner struggles that may seem small by comparison, but are most of what makes up all of our everyday lives.
McKenna is a mother of five who grew up (and still lives in) in a Massachusetts town (yes, in the Northeast, but small towns are pretty similar anywhere you go), and family ties and motherhood inform a great deal of her songwriting. Lead track “The Old Woman in Me” acknowledges the reality of the life she’s chosen to lead – “The old woman in me thinks I look good in these jeans/She remembers what her body did carrying all those kids” – while also representing a degree of aging gracefully “She don’t wanna go back in time/Thinks her 50s might have been her prime” (same, Lori).
1988 comes from the year that McKenna married her husband, Gene, and the title track recalls those blissfully ignorant days – “We were too dumb to know we didn’t know anything/And too young for making those plans.” Family ties run through “Happy Children,” written with son Chris McKenna, which passes simple wisdom and wishes down the generational lines, all with the simple hope, “I hope you have happy children.”
But the truth of small towns extends beyond the family to corners, shadows and gray areas you won’t find in the my-way-or-the-highway world of country radio. “Growing Up” is an pensive acoustic tune that doesn’t gloss over the illusions of the good old days – “When the way it was, wasn’t what it seemed” – but also acknowledges the inevitability of the impressions left on us by our raisin’ – “You move on just the way time does/’Til something brings you right back/To growing up.”
“Wonder Drug” has a big country ballad feel, but openly addresses how opioid addiction is a) a consequence of inadequate access to health care and b) often inescapable – “It’s a monster I know it, its fangs started showing/Took more than I could ever give/Why couldn’t love be the wonder drug.”
And “Town in Your Heart” isn’t a Vaseline-lensed ode to the good ol’ days. Punched up by producer Dave Cobb’s electric guitar work, it’s a road song of sorts, from a brother who escaped to a brother who succumbed – “And I’d go back if I had my way, and I’d make/Those demons that were haunting you wish they had never tried.” Small town life suits some folks, but others get swallowed up by it. Like McKenna, I grew up in a small Northeastern town and, while it did (and still does) share some of the ugly characteristics that Aldean portrays, it was much closer to McKenna’s version, and it was populated (mostly) by the same folks she has in her songs. For that, I’m grateful.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “The Tunnel” – A sweet, slow burner that sums up the mystery of life, whether it be in a small town or a big city – “I don’t know how it works or how God picks who gets through/It just seems like a lot of life’s been mostly the tunnel for you.”
1988 was produced by Dave Cobb, recorded by Brandon Bell, mixed by Cobb and Bell and mastered by Pete Lyman. All songs written by Lori McKenna – co-writing credits go to Chris McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird, Barry Dean, Brian McKenna, Jessie Jo Dillon, Dustin Christensen, Ben West and Stephen Wilson Jr. Musicians on the album include McKenna (vocals, acoustic guitar), Cobb (electric and acoustic guitars, keys), Chris Powell (drums, percussion), Brian Allen (bass), Michael Webb (keys) and Hillary Lindsey (vocals).
Go here to order 1988 (out July 21): https://lorimckenna.merchmadeeasy.com/collections/1988-pre-order?ffm=FFM_7052cdd0b6472c234527ae46a83828d6
Check out tour dates here: http://www.lorimckenna.com/tour