Album Review: Lori McKenna’s ‘The Bird & the Rifle’

The Bird & the Rifle is a testament to McKenna's precision as a songwriter and exemplifies why she remains so in demand ten albums after her debut.

Written by Annie Reuter
Album Review: Lori McKenna’s ‘The Bird & the Rifle’
Photo by Becky Fluke

Lori McKenna is one of the most sought after songwriters in the country genre and it’s easy to see why with her descriptive lyrics and all-too-real life-like storylines. Writing credits include songs by Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Little Big Town, Hunter Hayes, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, among others. The Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and performer showcases why she is in such high demand on her excellent 10th solo effort, The Bird & the Rifle, which she had a hand writing and co-writing each of the 10 tracks.

The album was produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson) and even Cobb is an admirer of McKenna. “I really wanted to work with Lori because of the truth and honesty she carries with her pen, ” he says. “I love her wit and humor and the fact she writes her own songs purely for the sake of art.”

That honesty is seen on opening track “Wreck You” where McKenna laments over a relationship that has been seeing more struggle than victory as of late. “Something between us changed / I’m not sure if it’s you or me / But lately all I do seems to wreck you,” she sings.

“Sometimes we all feel like, ‘Oh, I cannot do anything right,’” McKenna says of the song. “I think your job as a songwriter is in the three and half minutes that you have, to exaggerate that feeling, take that little speck of a feeling and set it on fire.”

Cover art courtesy Sacks & Co.

Cover art courtesy Sacks & Co.

McKenna accomplishes exactly this on many of the tracks throughout The Bird & the Rifle. Her impeccably detailed lyrics place the listener in the room with each of the song’s characters time and time again. Whether it’s a nostalgic look back on old love in “We Were Cool,” the tongue-in-cheek “Old Men Young Women” where a young woman finds herself the “past in a summer dress  [and] he’s riding a red Corvette,” or the poignant “Giving Up On Your Hometown” which details a now unrecognizable birthplace, the emotions are felt fully thanks to McKenna’s wavering alto and emotionally-infused vocals.

Meanwhile, the standout “Halfway Home” has McKenna telling the tale of a woman driving back home at 4 a.m. alone with last night’s clothes on after a date. The storyline is so vivid, the listener feels like she is in the car with the main character in the song. “Deep down you know that you’re worth more than this / Or the cost of that dinner last night / He’d be driving you home if he was worth half a shit and his daddy had raised him up right . . . let me remind you there’s real love out there down the road,” she powerfully sings.

The Bird & the Rifle includes McKenna’s No. 1 hit “Humble & Kind,” which also marks the first time in over four years a song went to the top of the country charts with one writer. (The last was Taylor Swift’s “Ours” in 2012). Recorded by Tim McGraw, McKenna’s version of “Humble & Kind” is more stripped down. The sparse music highlights her yearning vocals and heartfelt lyrics within the song, which was written with her five children in mind.

“I can say it’s one of my favorite songs, mostly because I had my kids in my head the whole time I was trying to write it,” she explains. “My kids know that it’s theirs, and it’s nice in that way. It worked out pretty good.”

The album was recorded over 10 days at Cobb’s studio in Nashville and the minimal production gives the listener the feeling that McKenna is sitting right beside them and singing from her living room. An incredibly vulnerable and honest album, The Bird & the Rifle is like a deep conversation with a close friend. It has the highs and lows of a lasting relationship, the letdowns of growing up and staying in one’s hometown and the all-too-real difficulties in finding a partner in life. Songwriting at its finest,  The Bird & the Rifle is a testament to McKenna’s precision as a songwriter and exemplifies why she remains so in demand ten albums after her debut.