This mother of five is about to hit it big
Lori McKenna has lived in the same blue-collar New England town her whole life. She married a boy she'd known since the third grade right out of high school. Soon after, they had their first baby. He became a plumber; she sold Tupperware and took care of the kids.
Now McKenna's life is on the cusp of deep change.
On Monday, McKenna, a critically acclaimed but largely unknown folk singer, is scheduled to appear and sing with country superstar Faith Hill on the Oprah Winfrey Show. From the kitchen of her small home in Stoughton, Mass., with five children underfoot, amid their toys and warbling interruptions, McKenna managed to write songs that caught the ear of Hill, who recorded three of McKenna's songs on her recent album, "Fireflies."
Now something of a champion of McKenna, Hill not only asked the singer-songwriter to appear on her Thanksgiving TV special, but insisted that she share the couch on Oprah. The doyenne of daytime TV is renowned for sparking buying frenzies by loyal viewers, and McKenna admits that she's "on overwhelm."
One can hardly blame her. For years, McKenna had recorded albums for Signature Records, a small independent label. Then Warner Bros. Records came knocking. Last week the company rushed to rerelease her latest album, "Bittertown," in time for her TV appearance.
"If you had asked me, a year ago or two years ago: 'Do you think you'll be on Oprah and have a major label, I would have been on the floor laughing," she says.
Still, McKenna - her oldest child 16, her youngest 16 months - says she's a mother and wife first, a singer-songwriter second. "If I had to make a list of my titles, and where the priority is," she says, "it's absolutely the kids and my husband, and then the career."
After all, it's the quotidian in life - the workings of her family and her town - that are McKenna's inspiration. In "One Man" on "Bittertown," she sings: "One man, one town is all I need/ a simple plan to guide me/ through the simple life I lead."
For a woman with a breezy voice and an easy laugh, who can't quite believe her good fortune, McKenna's lyrics are surprisingly forlorn. Folksy with a definite twang, she charts the heartache of everyday - dreams deferred in a small town, loves transformed over time. "I'm drawn to sad songs," McKenna says.
McKenna was 14 when an older brother handed her a guitar and encouraged her to write music. It would be more than a decade before she performed for the first time, at an open-mic in a local bar.
Though her town and her life form the backbone of her art, she says only about 15 percent of what she writes is autobiographical. The rest are exaggerations, what happens when the truth of experience "gets [her] brain working."
"I think that all those stories that are on the record, you could find anywhere," says McKenna.
If she were to really write about her own life, she says, her songs would be more like Martina McBride's "Blessed." "If I just wrote about myself, nobody would listen."
Music seems to run in the family. Two of her brothers are songwriters. And McKenna says that all of her children are musical. The oldest, Brian, plays electric guitar on "Mr. Sunshine," the second track on "Bittertown." It's her only daughter, though, 4-year-old Meghan, who takes most after mom. "She thinks she wrote most of the songs on the radio," says McKenna. The toddler sings along to pop star Justin Timberlake, and when McKenna asks how she knows the words, replies: "I wrote this song."
If McKenna's album takes off, she hopes she can bring her family along for the ride - literally. She's ready to trade in their gold minivan, with its 150,000 miles, for a real tour bus. By summer - with school out - she hopes to have made a record and be ready to tour. "Next summer, I'm like, 'Put me on the road,' " she says. "Give me my five kids, my husband can come when he wants."