Lori McKenna Shows Her Roots on 'The Tree'

Photo: Becky Fluke

There's not a track on Lori McKenna's latest release, The Tree, that won't bring a tear to your eyes. The Tree shows how we are all connected at the root level.

The Tree
Lori McKenna

Thirty Tigers

20 July 2018

There's not a track on Lori McKenna's latest release that won't bring a tear to your eyes. These are songs of familial love, about mothers and fathers and kids. Sure, that may sound sappy. How could they not be considering the subject matter? What elevates her material above Hallmark card drivel can be found in her use of particular details to reveal layers of emotion and her sweet soprano voice. McKenna may be singing about something as mundane as swinging on her father's arms as a child and then break one's heart just by the way she annunciates the word "daddy". Pass the tissues, please.

McKenna's protagonists are mostly middle-aged or older. They remember the glory days of their youth but don't want to relive them. They just want to capture the fire. She sings this directly on "Young And Angry Again", but that spirit invades almost all of the material here. By the way, the buoyant "Young And Angry Again" was co-written with Barry Dean and Luke Laird. Seven of the record's 11 tracks are co-written, but they all sound of a piece. Without the liner notes, it would be difficult to discern which compositions were written solo from those with others. McKenna's presence goes beyond just singing the tunes. She inhabits them like an old work shirt.

Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell) produced the album in Nashville with a small combo that features McKenna on vocals and acoustic guitar and Cobb himself on guitars and mellotron. The arrangements are deceptively simple and allow McKenna lots of open space to express herself. Cobb understands the sophisticated musical rhetoric of appearing effortless. McKenna tosses off the lyrics as if she's just singing to a friend. She impresses by not trying to impress.

The Tree has a distinct maternal sensibility. Songs such as "A Mother Never Rests", "You Won't Even Know I'm Gone" and "The Tree" reflect McKenna's experiences as the mother of five children who had her first when she was only 20 years old. She also offers sympathetic insights into fathers and husbands on such tracks as "The Fixer" and "People Get Old". McKenna understands that people become who they are without really knowing why or how, and that what and who we love is a mystery. Consider the implications of this sublime line from "The Lot Behind St. Mary's": "I'm sure the dreamer who built the first trapeze / Fell in love with someone who grew to resent the God damned thing." A Buddhist koan couldn't put it any more powerfully or succinctly. Dreamers, flight, love, hate, god—it's all there.

On other songs McKenna suggests that happiness can be found in giving to others, that being mean will just bring you down, and to keep one's heart and mind open. These are straightforward lessons and maybe a bit naïve. But it's still good to be reminded about what matters in life and to love those who have helped you along the way. The Tree shows how we are all connected at the root level.






Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.


It's a Helluva of a World in Alain Corneau's 'Série Noire'

Alain Corneau's Série Noire is like a documentary of squalid desperation, albeit a slightly heightened and sardonic one.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.