Dec 6, 2013
09:06 AMArts & Entertainment
With Fans Like Faith Hill, Oprah, Lori McKenna No Mere 'Housewife'; Old Saybrook Concert Sunday
Lori McKenna will tell you she’s not the greatest singer. She’ll tell you she’s not one to compose happy songs or party songs or songs that will make you want to dance.
McKenna, who will appear at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook this Sunday, Dec. 8, grew up writing songs no one would hear, and if her older brother hadn’t convinced her to perform at an open mike night in Boston, and if she hadn’t been met with so enthusiastic a response, she would have just stayed home, writing songs no one would hear.
She’ll tell you she’s madly in love with the piano, even though she can’t play a lick, except when she’s trying to work out a new song in her basement studio. And that she’s not entirely sure she’s worthy of her first name, Lorraine, which was the name of her mother, who died when she was seven, because, as she writes in the title track of “Lorraine,” her 2011 album, “I ain’t that pretty and I ain’t that brave/My kids have seen me cry/They should have given her name to my sister Marie.”
She’ll tell you she’s just a housewife married to her high school sweetheart Gene, a plumber for the local gas company, living in the small town of Stoughton (pop. 27,000 and declining) 15 miles outside Boston, with five kids, all of whom she drove to school in a 1999 Ford Windstar minivan with 150,000 miles on it. A housewife with five kids who happens to write songs.
What she won’t tell you is that, for perhaps these very reasons, she might just be the best pure storyteller in country music today. Country superstar Faith Hill had a listen and fell hard, recording covers of three of her songs on her 2005 number one album “Fireflies” and inviting her to open for her and her husband Tim McGraw on their 2005 Soul2Soul stadium tour. Appearances on “Oprah” and at the Grand Ole Opry, as well as a record deal with Warner Brothers followed.
And then, just when such acclaimed artists as Mandy Moore, Sara Evans, and Jimmy Wayne were lining up to cover her songs, she went home to Stoughton.
“A giant arena tour and recording in Nashville, as heady and rewarding as those experiences were,” the 44-year-old said in a recent phone interview, “they’re not exactly the safest way to guard your creative instincts.” Still, she added, she wouldn’t trade them for anything. “I learned I was a songwriter first, and then a singer.”
Not to mention her realization of the pull that place has on her. Just listen to her loving depiction of her family home on the title track to her 2007 album “Unglamorous”—of the “curtains faded, the rugs threadbare,” the “wonderful crowded dinners at the kitchen table,” and “peanut butter on everything,” the “no frills, no fuss/ perfectly us, unglamorous.”
Or cue up “Buy This Town,” a valentine to Stoughton, replete with images of the working class environment, of “third shift dreamers and high school love,” of a firefighter at the high school football game because his kid is playing. “That’s my neighbor John,” she sings, “and his son Lucas is on the football team.”
Follow that up with “Smaller and Smaller,” a poignant song written four years after that, that finds her looking out the window, watching her town turn slowly into a mid-sized suburb, with “traffic lights and fenced-in yards,” where “old men got nowhere to talk,” “a big mall grew out of the dirt,” and “next door neighbors don’t know who you are.”