Music

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.

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