Lori McKenna’s current tour is a walk down memory lane for the award-winning songwriter. The Return to Bittertown Tour celebrates the 15th anniversary of her acclaimed debut album Bittertown. The award-winning songwriter is also commemorating the occasion with the vinyl release of new acoustic versions of “Stealing Kisses” and “Bible Song,” first featured on her auspicious debut.
“It’s a baby tour. That’s how I like it,” McKenna tells Sounds Like Nashville of the handful of shows she launched in late July and continues through early August. “The first show was in [Washington] D.C. and the first show is always nerve racking. It’s like, ‘Oh my God! Am I going to remember these songs?’ I had to learn them all again. I didn’t know most of them anymore.”
So much has happened to McKenna since the release of that first album it’s easy to see why she might have to reacquaint herself with those early songs. The Massachusetts native has raised five children and released 11 albums. Along the way, she’s become one of country music’s most critically revered and commercially successful songwriters. She’s the first woman ever to win the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year two years in a row for co-writing Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and writing Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” solo. Both those hits also earned Grammy Awards.
In 2017, she became the Academy of Country Music’s first female Songwriter of the Year. Her songs have been cut by numerous artists, including Faith Hill, Keith Urban, Mandy Moore, Sara Evans, Hunter Hayes, Reba McEntire and Alison Krauss. She co-wrote the poignant ballad “Always Remember Us This Way,” which was featured in the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga movie A Star is Born.
But, it all started with Bittertown. “When I made that record, I didn’t know if I was going to keep doing music at that point because I didn’t have a publishing deal. I’d never co-written a song. I never had a song cut. At that point, we were putting money into my music career versus living off of it by any stretch of the imagination. I was scared,” she says. “I have so much freedom in my music now. I get to work with so many people because of that record, and because of Faith Hill finding it and just bringing me in to the whole world of Nashville and co-writing, which I love so very much now. It’s really been kind of emotional going back.”
Back then McKenna and her friend singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier were both on the Signature Sounds label. Gauthier moved to Nashville and gave Bittertown to Nashville publisher Melanie Howard, who called and asked McKenna is she could pitch her songs. “The record came out in May and Faith cut four songs by Thanksgiving, so that’s how fast it happened once it happened,” she says, still sounding amazed at her good fortune all these years later. “Now that I know how songwriting and publishing works a little bit, I know people are just writing songs day after day in Nashville and trying to have a career in songwriting. The way I describe it is like I won the lottery and I didn’t even buy a ticket.”
Hill became a friend and a huge supporter. “The thing about Faith is she identified so much with the housewife aspect of that record,” McKenna says. “It’s about raising little kids and trying to figure out marriage, your hometown, people around you and your community. I think that’s where we understand each other the best, Faith and I. I always say that she’s a gorgeous creature that has immense talent and yet at her core, she’s just like all of us. She’s just like every woman you know and I think that’s been a blessing for me that she identified with that record.”
In celebrating the 15th anniversary of Bittertown, McKenna re-recorded acoustic versions of “Bible Song” and “Stealing Kisses” with hit songwriter/producer Luke Laird. “The seven inch vinyl is so cool to me,” she says. “I grew up with vinyl records. I have four big brothers and when vinyl started coming around again my kids started collecting them.”
McKenna is signed to Creative Nation in Nashville for management and publishing. When president/co-founder Beth Laird (who is married to Luke Laird) suggested she pick two of her favorite songs from Bittertown and re-record them for a vinyl release, McKenna jumped at the chance. “We were pretty tuned to the versions that were on the [original] record. Lorne Entress produced the versions on the record and listening back to it, the production really stands its own even 15 years later,” she says. “So we just kind of stayed in that vibe and Luke brought it to the now without stepping on its toes. And we had Buddy Miller sing on ‘Bible Song’ because he sang it originally and that was so great. It was really fun going back into the studio and recording. Being in the vocal booth singing ‘Stealing Kisses’ again was real fun.”
Since the release of Bittertown, McKenna has released 10 additional albums, including her Grammy Award-nominated The Bird & The Rifle in 2016, and Americana Award-nominated, The Tree, in 2018. Both were produced by Dave Cobb, known for his work with Chris Stapleton, Anderson East, the Oak Ridge Boys and the Highwomen. When asked how her artistry has evolved over the last 15 years, she responds, “I’ve learned a little bit more about music along the way, but I think the biggest thing has been confidence because I’ve always had a little bit of confidence issues like, ‘Should I be doing this? I can’t really sing like other people can sing, but I love to write songs. Should I keep at this?’ It really wasn’t until I found Nashville, because of Faith, and started writing with other people and I found my community in other writers.
“I live in the Boston community and there’s a ton of great musicians here,” she continues, “but I’m not really the type of musician or singer that could just jump on stage with anybody and play along. So I didn’t have that sense of community even though I love my friends up in Boston who play music. What I really found in Nashville is sort of my home in that it’s where I get to sit in a room with my friends and write songs. I just love songs. I love all songs and where they come from. I love every part of it, so I think if anything my confidence has grown. I know that I’m a songwriter now and when I wrote this record [Bittertown] I wasn’t sure yet.”
Though McKenna has found success with songs she’s written solo, she enjoys co-writing, especially with her friends Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, who are known collectively as the Love Junkies. The trio co-wrote Little Big Town’s hit “Girl Crush.” She says they may do an album together someday, but each have such busy lives, it would be hard to schedule.
Over the years, McKenna has become a master at juggling busy schedules as she has balanced being a mother of five with her writing and recording. “It’s all due to the fact that my husband is a saint and really nurtures what I do and makes sure I keep my gratitude,” she says of her husband of nearly 31 years, Gene McKenna. “My youngest will be a freshman in high school. My daughter, who is the only daughter, she’s a senior in high school this year and then the three older boys are all on their own. Two are in their 20’s. My oldest is 30. Two of my older kids are songwriters and living in Nashville and doing the grind. They are writing and co-writing songs every day. They love it.”
McKenna loves her family and her career, and she’s grateful for it all. “There’s so much luck in my story because I really didn’t have a lot of control over anything that was happening,” she says. “It was mostly just sticking my neck out and luck would just run down the street and grab me. There’s been so much of that and to this day, I’ve been doing this now for almost 20 years and to this day I still am so thankful for everything music brings me. It’s never disappointed me. It’s always just completely surprised me every time.”
She appreciates the way music connects us. “I think what we all love about music is it has so many gifts, but one of the greatest gifts is it makes us feel like we’re not alone, like someone else has felt like that,” she says. “Music does that to us. It makes us feel like we’re not alone and that’s what I love the most about it.”