Lori McKenna is old-fashioned, but it doesn’t seem like she would mind be called such. She purposely expresses domestic sentiments tempered by age and experience. The mother of five (and the youngest of six siblings) writes and sings of family, home life, and multi-generational experiences in warm and tender ways that evoke the joys and pains of getting older and seeing life from multiple perspectives.
On The Balladeer, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter sings about feeling “Stuck in High School” on one track and then telling her school-age kids about how they will feel “When You’re My Age” and has “The Dream” about seeing her dead mother on another. Time has a way of floating in and out of her stories. McKenna sees past, present, and future coincide. Nothing changes, but the details. As a middle-aged woman, she still remembers how it felt to be young (and admits to maybe seeing the past through rose-colored glasses) and understands how the changing world looks to those older than she is.
And her gender does influence her perception. The opening track personifies “This Town Is a Woman” with metaphors concerning the burg’s curves and compassion. She sings about her sister “Marie” and other ladies in her life and imagination on a host of tracks, including “Two Birds”, that tells the story of two gals (a lover and a wife) who discover they are romantic relationships with the same man. One never loses the sense that the listener sees life from a female perspective. However, her songs are populated by both decent and evil women and men: just being one gender or another does not make one virtuous or naughty. Life is not so simple.
Simple is the operative word here. On the surface, McKenna seems to tell unadorned tales of contemporary life. She writes in plain language and uses unfussy melodies to tell her stories. There is something uncomplicated about her writing, where “hearts shine like gold” and “the Lord’s Prayer keeps you right”. But McKenna’s genius lies in the way she transmutes down-to-earth homilies into deeper discourses. She may not use big words, but her songs contain profound emotional truths.
The ten songs on The Balladeer will bring a tear to your eye, the kind you can wipe away with just one swipe of a tissue, but their contents remain stuck in your brain as you ponder the connections between her characters, their situations, and people in your own life. McKenna plants unconscious memories that reverberate with one’s own feelings and behaviors. The evocative richness of such lines as “I am a self-described black sheep, a self-denying sinner / Raised by a village of my peers in the back seats of used cars”, “I hope the world is kinder than it seems to be right now / And I hope the front page isn’t just a reminder of how we keep letting each other down”, and “Time moves faster than you think / you just can’t see it when you’re young” are complemented by McKenna’s straightforward delivery. She conveys eternal truths that are never outgrown, like the way a kid will always be her mother’s baby no matter how old one gets.
Dave Cobb produced the record and accompanied McKenna on acoustic and electric guitar. (McKenna also plays acoustic guitar as well as sings lead. Other contributors include Brian Allen (bass, cello, upright bass), Chris Powell (drums, percussion), and Philip Towns (piano, Wurlitzer, Mellotron, harmonium). McKenna wrote the majority of the album alone except for three tracks written with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose—a group collectively known as the Love Junkies, who also sing on the record.
The title song tells the fictional of a musician surprised by her success. The details are not autobiographical, but the sentiment seems appropriate to McKenna and her career. In a world where youth is celebrated, and age is seen as an impediment, her work has been commended for its honest presentation of the wisdom of age. The Balladeer will only help cement her reputation as one of America’s finest musical artists.