Lori McKenna at The Shea Theater Arts Center

  • Lori McKenna Contributed photo—

  • Sheryl Hunter, Sounds Local Andy Castillo

Published: 8/1/2019 9:00:23 AM
Modified: 8/1/2019 9:00:12 AM

When singer-songwriter Lori McKenna thinks about her career, it comes down to before “Bittertown,” and after. “Bittertown” is her fourth album, which was released 15 years ago by Signature Sounds Recordings of Northampton. At the time of its release, she was a self-described housewife, married to a plumber and living in Stoughton, the town she grew up in. She had given birth to her fifth child only days prior to the album’s arrival. On “Bittertown,” she channeled her own experiences into honest songs that captured all the small joys and devastating heartbreaks of small-town life.

After fellow singer-songwriter, Mary Gauthier started introducing McKenna’s songs around Nashville, her work caught the ear of country superstar Faith Hill, who recorded three of McKenna’s songs. This recognition from Hill, which McKenna calls a blessing, led her to Nashville, Tenn. where she is now a two time Grammy Award winner and one of the city’s most in-demand songwriters.

Her songs have been covered by Tim McGraw, Little Big Town, Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, Hunter Hayes, Keith Urban and many others. She also was a co-writer on Miranda Lambert’s new single, “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” and co-wrote the song “Crowded Table,” which will appear on the upcoming album from the country super-group, The Highwoman.

In 2017 she won a Grammy for her song “Humble and Kind,” a No. 1 hit for Tim McGraw. That win came following a Grammy for “Girl Crush,” a song she co-wrote with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and was recorded by Little Big Town. In 2016, she became the first woman ever to win the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year two years in a row, thanks to“Girl Crush” and “Humble and Kind.” In 2017, she was the Academy of Country Music’s first female Songwriter of the Year.

But now she is returning to “Bittertown” as she celebrates that album’s 15th anniversary with a tour where she will be backed by a full band and play the album in its entirety. The six-city tour will make a stop at the Shea Theater Arts Center in Turners Falls Friday night at 7:30 p.m.

This show is a special one for McKenna, as it is being presented by Signature Sounds. The label and its president, Jim Olsen, are not only responsible for the release of “Bittertown,” the album she said changed her life, but she credits Olsen with helping her to take herself seriously as a songwriter. Prior to releasing “Bittertown,” she released two earlier albums on the Signature Sounds label.

“I can’t wait to play this show because it will be special because Signature Sounds is where it all began,” said McKenna in a recent phone interview.

There will be another local connection at this show, in that bassist Paul Kochanski (Fancy Trash, The Threesies) is a member of her backing band for this tour.

In addition to the tour, in honor of this anniversary, she released new acoustic versions of “Bible Song” and “Stealing Kisses” (one of the songs recorded by Hill), two of her favorite songs off “Bittertown.” The songs are available digitally or will be sold on a limited edition 7-inch vinyl sold at the shows.

McKenna launched the tour the night before our conversation and it marked the first time she had played these songs in many years.

“The show was great, and fun playing with the band. But I had to relearn these songs, I write so many that it’s hard for them to all soak into my brain,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s just fun to go back that intently into the songs,” said McKenna, who despite being known for writing sad songs (and “Bittertown” is full of them) is upbeat and laughs frequently in conversation. “I think you learn more about yourself this way, rather than just listening to them every now and then; to play them live for an audience is a different way to learn about your former self.”

She admitted it’s been an interesting journey to go back and visit that former self. When she wrote the material on “Bittertown,” McKenna was pregnant with her youngest child and had never co-written a song. She hadn’t been to Nashville before and had never seriously thought about other people covering her songs.

“When I was making music back then, at any given moment someone could come home and say, ‘You know what Lori this music thing is kind of taking away from the family and it’s not really making any money and contributing to the economics of the household, so maybe we should put this on the back burner,’” said McKenna, who started writing songs when she was a teenager. “After ‘Bittertown,’ music became more of a staple in my life. It was less of me doing something for myself, this was something I could really do.”

And she has certainly proved that songwriting is something that she can do. McKenna continues to live in Stoughton, but travels to Nashville a couple of times a month, spending a few days each time. She does a great deal of co-writing, something she loves to do. She frequently writes with Lindsey and Rose, and the trio are referred to as “The Love Junkies.”

She also continues with her solo career. Her 2016 release, “The Bird & the Rifle,” which included “Humble and Kind,” a song she wrote and recorded for her children before McGraw’s cover, was nominated for a Grammy. Last year, “The Tree,” was nominated for an Americana award.

I asked how covering a song works — does McKenna get a call from someone like Keith Urban, requesting a new song?

“No, it doesn’t really work that way, but if Keith Urban asked I’d sure try,” she said with a laugh. “We just focus on writing the best songs we can.”

That being said, McKenna says she did have a writing-to-order experience when she was part of the elite songwriting group that worked on the soundtrack for the hit movie, “A Star is Born,” starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.

“It was a great project to work on, but also kind of difficult. When we got there the script wasn’t even done yet, it was evolving all the time,” she said. “Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper were such a big part of all the music in that “

McKenna, along with Natalie Hemby and Lindsey ended up co-writing the song “Always Remember Us This Way” with Lady Gaga. It was the second single from the soundtrack and not surprisingly one of the saddest songs on the album.

Working with Lady Gaga was a memorable experience and one that was enjoyable, McKenna said.

“She was the character and she was coming in to do her job of writing songs for that character. She was so fun to work with and she’s so exceptionally talented,” said McKenna. “She was like one of the girls.”

For McKenna, writing with Lady Gaga and winning two Grammy Awards was a “pinch-me” moment.

“Just going to the Grammy Awards is unbelievable,” she said. “Sometimes I walk by my piano and see the Grammy Awards sitting there and go how did this happen?’ I can’t believe that I get to do this. It’s the best job you could ask for. I’m really lucky and the thing about music for me is I never expected anything from it and it’s given me so much. Every year when I look back I’m so thankful.

Tickets for McKenna’s show are $25, available at signaturesoundspresents.com. Doors open Friday night at the Shea Theater Arts Center in Turners Falls, 71 Avenue A, at 7 p.m. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Hailey Whitters will open the show.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.

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