Lori McKenna: Rock ‘n’ roll mama
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 16, 2002) -- It’s taken a few years, but a once-shy mom in the Boston suburb of Stoughton no longer dreads being introduced around town as a singer-songwriter.

For one thing, Lori McKenna can no longer hide it. Her picture and her name keep appearing in all the top Boston papers, including the Globe and the Phoenix, where she was most recently nominated for two awards as best vocalist and best roots act. She has also recently been heard on Boston public radio station WBUR and on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” program.

Fortunately for the 32-year-old Stoughton native and mother of four, she’s gotten over the initial awkwardness over being introduced as a performer just in time.
“I’m now getting to the point where if I meet a new mom at school and they ask what I do, I just say I’m a singer-songwriter,” said McKenna in a recent phone interview. “That’s what I do. Sometimes they’re surprised, but they get over it pretty quickly.”

It would be easy to mistake McKenna – who performs on Saturday night at 8:30 at Club Helsinki (528-3394) on a double-bill with Stephen Kellogg – for just another mother around town. She speaks in the distinctive cadences of Boston’s South Shore and comes from a large family of six siblings. Many of her relatives still live in town, which helps tremendously on those nights when McKenna can’t make it back home after a gig outside of the immediate area. Her father, who lives right down the block, or one of her siblings are able to step in and help get the children to or from school and stay with them until their father gets home from his job at a local utility company.

But on most days, McKenna is a traditional, stay-at-home mother who occasionally works nights and weekends, and people have gotten used to it.

“I stick out a little bit, but my friends and neighbors around here have gone through this whole process with me,” said McKenna. “It’s been this gradual thing where they’ve all been along for the ride with me, from hearing me play songs in my kitchen to the first time I played the local bar to my debut at a coffeehouse in Cambridge to when I came out with my first CD. All these tiny steps -- they’ve all been along for the ride with me.”

What those friends have been able to witness up close and first-hand is the makings of a critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter with a distinctive voice and style. McKenna first garnered public notice with the release of her 1998 CD, Paper Wings and Halo, which the Boston Globe called one of the top 10 of the year.

The follow-up CD, Pieces of Me (Catalyst Disc), brought even more raves. It paired McKenna with fellow vocalists like Ellis Paul, Jennifer Kimball and Richard Shindell, and featured an array of top-flight Boston musicians who work with the likes of the Martin Sexton, Morphine, Patty Griffin and the Story.

Within a short time, McKenna was appearing on the prestigious stages at Lilith Fair and the Newport Folk Festival. Her catchy melodies, carefully wrought lyrics and her distinctive, enigmatic twang earned her comparisons to Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams and Roseanne Cash.

In spite of the vocal twang and the country lilt, McKenna is not from the South and she never listened to country music.

“I don’t know where that comes from,” said McKenna about the country influence on her singing and her melodies. “I grew up listening to James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young -- whatever my older brothers were listening to. I didn’t listen to country music at all.

“I grew up listening to Broadway musical soundtracks all the time. I was obsessed with ‘West Side Story.’ I knew I could sing Anita’s part better than Maria’s,
but that was it. I never intended to sing in front of people, so I never patterned my voice after anything. But somehow I wound up with this voice.”

And how does her oldest son, now 13, feel about his folk-rocking mother?

“He loves the music, and he wants to be a great guitar player,” said McKenna. “He’s into Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. Last year I began playing with a band half the time, and that’s just a thrill for him.

“That being said, the other day I dropped him off at school and got out of the car to walk in with him and he stopped and asked me to wait in the car for him. I said, ‘Hey, your mom is cool, look at my boots!’ So he’s on the edge of that border between loving it and being embarrassed by it.

“I’m still his mom no matter what.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 15, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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