Lori McKenna headlines Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House after historic Songwriter of the Year win
If You Go …
Who: Lori McKenna
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, April 15, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $35
Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Two weeks ago Lori McKenna won Songwriter of the Year at the Academy of County Music Awards, becoming the first woman to take home the most prestigious prize in country songwriting and adding another trophy to her suddenly crowded mantel.
“It was quite a shock,” she said in a phone interview a few days later from her home in Massachusetts on an afternoon when she was back to carpooling kids — she’s a mother of five — after school. “I still don’t believe it, to be honest.”
But McKenna should be getting used to winning by now. She’s won the Grammy for Best Country Song the past two years in a row — for Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” in 2016 and for Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” this year. (She also was nominated for three Grammys for her own album “The Bird and the Rifle” and the song “Wreck You”).
“It doesn’t get old, that’s for sure,” she said of the awards show circuit. “The best part is being a part of the awards shows, to be a part of a big event and see all your friends and all the people I work with. The only time they’re together is at awards shows. So it’s nice to get dressed up and be with people that you like.”
McKenna, who will close out the winter season at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday is becoming the most sought-after songwriter in country — writing and co-writing with the likes of Faith Hill and Keith Urban.
“I do enjoy working with artists and trying to find what they’re trying to say in the song,” she said. “I love co-writing for that reason.”
McKenna’s simple and powerful folk style has been a godsend at a moment in country music when cliche reigns — just pull up the YouTube supercut of the repetitive lyrics about beer, trucks and tight jeans in recent chart-toppers to get a sense of how creatively dire it’s gotten for the genre. McKenna’s songs are like a dose of adrenaline, dropping the kabuki cowboy theater of today’s big country for a gritty realism reminiscent of Steve Earle and the Cowboy Junkies and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” era Lucinda Williams. She has a unique gift for finding fresh turns of phrase, inventing hard-luck truisms and coining country koans.
Along with her acclaimed work with country music’s biggest names, McKenna has recorded 10 solo albums of her own, including last year’s “The Bird and the Rifle.”
The heartbreaker of an album opener, “Wreck You,” has a chorus that repeats “I don’t know how to pull you back/ I don’t know how to pull you close/ All I know is how to wreck you.”
The record’s closing track, “If Whiskey Were a Woman,” gives us a lovely series of original metaphors, jumping from woman as whiskey to weed to prayer and the sunrise, finally exploding, “If whiskey were a woman, she’d be nothing like me/Because I’ve given in, I’ve given up/You wanna love something that I could never be.”
In between there’s her own rendition of “Humble & Kind,” the plaintive title track, and a half-dozen more melodic folk-tinged songs of weary wisdom.
At this weekend’s Aspen show, she’ll be performing with a full band behind her — the same crew that’s been on the road with her for 10 years, and that played on her 2013 album “Massachusetts.”
McKenna said she expects to play most of the songs from “The Bird and the Rifle,” along with some from her past few records. And, unsurprisingly, the prolific songwriter tends to test out brand new material on her audiences.
“The thing about songwriters is that our favorite song is the one we just wrote,” she said with a laugh. “So we always have to throw some of those in.”
For McKenna, live performance is an integral part of the creative process. She’s no studio rat or hermit scribbling away in isolation. She often needs a live audience to get a composition just right.
“That’s when you fall into your phrasing and little words change here and there once you perform live a couple times,” she said. “Sometimes a song will work on paper, or when you’re sitting by yourself somewhere, but then when you try to stand it up with a band at a show it’s a different story.”
Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s new fall lecture series will run weekly from Oct. 20 through Dec. 6. The lineup consists of artists nationwide who will be spending one to three weeks at the ranch completing projects within their area of expertise and exploring new work in the studios.