NASHVILLE SKYLINE: She’s Writing Your Life Story in Bittertown

Singer-Songwriter Lori McKenna Is Getting Serious Country Attention

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

It’s always encouraging when a worthy singer-songwriter who’s been laboring in the relative wilderness for years suddenly gets attention by a much wider audience.

In this case, it’s a housewife and mother of five who lives in a small town near Boston. She’s married to a plumber and has been touring and gigging on weekends in the family van.

Lori McKenna has Faith Hill to thank for getting her a breakthrough to a new audience. The trail to Hill, though, wound through singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, who passed along McKenna’s songs to the late Harlan Howard’s widow — song publisher Melanie Howard — who got the songs to Hill. The latter decided at the last minute to include three McKenna songs on her new CD, Fireflies. “If You Ask,” “Stealing Kisses” and the title song were frequently singled out for praise in reviews of the album.

And now Hill’s record label, Warner Bros. Nashville, has decided to release McKenna’s new CD Bittertown. And it’s very worthwhile.

McKenna had been writing songs since her early teens and singing around the house but did not begin performing in public until age 27, when her family’s encouragement spurred her to try singing at open mike nights around Boston. The response heartened her, and she self-released her debut CD, Paper Wings & Halo, in March 1998. It became a Boston-area favorite, and she appeared at Lilith Fair and the Newport Folk Festival in 1999.

Then a small label released her Pieces of Me (which included “Fireflies”) in 2001, and she followed with The Kitchen Tapes in 2003. She literally recorded the latter by herself in her kitchen, accompanied only by her guitar, complete with ringing phones and the drone of a TV.

Her new Bittertown is her first with full band backing (with Buddy Miller on backing vocals on “Bible Song”), and it’s an impressive major label debut. Her songs encompass a painterly world of small-town dimensions that’s populated by people with bigger aspirations but with a realistic sense of the limitations they face. The mythical Bittertown is every American town that’s facing a dead end because of failing economics, because of job losses, because of local businesses closing down, jobs being outsourced outside the U.S. The people’s lives are limited and determined by forces outside their control. It’s about how those forces shape their own personal families and relationships and jobs. In other words, it’s about working class people who are living the end of the American Dream.

“Bible Song” is an anthemic expression of unspoken voices from the exurbs, tales of the walking dead, of those chained to poverty. The story is as bleak as it is expressive: “They marry young in these parts/They work the factories/So I ran as fast as I could/Through the tall grass and the midnight woods/So nobody would sing some Bible song over me.”

Also covered by Sara Evans on her new CD, Real Fine Place, “Bible Song” has deservedly gotten wide attention for its plain-spokenness. In her liner notes to Real Fine Place, Evans wrote about “Bible Song” thusly: “I see the most depressing town that you’ve ever been to, where there’s only one thing to do, and that’s go to work at the factory, get married and have kids. This girl was so afraid that she was going to die there. ’Sing a Bible song over me’ obviously means her funeral. She just wasn’t going to put up with that life, and so she ran. Lori McKenna is very cool. She writes really differently … very abstract. The song means something to her, but you have to interpret it in your own way and figure out your own way to relate to it.”

The song “One Man” especially encapsulates the suburban sprawl overtaking the landscape and what it means for an individual and the resultant family. She conjures up an entire world in a few lines: “They’re building up big houses/Back behind the school/Where we used to drink our beer on Friday nights/And pretend that we were lovers in your car/We can’t afford to live there/So we drive on past their marble and glass/Hoping that this blue collar town of ours/Won’t ever lose its balls.”

Her musical world is not entirely stark. “One Kiss Goodnight” is relatively happy. In “Mr. Sunshine,” McKenna finds solace even in the midst of “hard times” and “gray skies.” “Stealing Kisses” captures the lost years of lost love that turn to ash. “Monday Afternoon” begins with a first line that presages a damn good country song: “It’s Monday afternoon and I am drinking again.” The song “The Ledge” assumes that ledges are for jumping off: “Once you’re up on the ledge/There’s only one way down/So I’ll keep you up there/Where you’re safe and sound.” It’s tempting to quote all her lyrics, as evocative as they are. This album amounts to a master class in songwriting.

With an urgent vocal delivery full of rich vibrato and a full load of messages, McKenna is a striking new country music voice. Her clear, frank alto voice is not perfect — thankfully — but is riveting, and she is clearly worth serious attention.

Of her Kitchen Tapes album, McKenna wrote, “The recordings are far from perfect, but they were never meant to be. I’d like to think that their imperfections add to their beauty, and I hope you will, too.” Amen to that.