Nestled in the cozy Sound Emporium studios, the historic recording complex once helmed by Jack Clement, a small group of industry members gathered for an early hearing of Creative Nation songwriter Lori McKenna’s latest project, The Bird & The Rifle.
McKenna and producer Dave Cobb were front and center to discuss tracks from the project, in a conversation moderated by NPR Music music critic and author Ann Powers. Among those present were John Marks, Creative Nation’s Luke and Beth Laird, Creative Nation songwriter Barry Dean, and more.
Recorded live over 10 days at Cobb’s home studio in Nashville this past winter, The Bird & The Rifle is elegantly sparse, with instrumental backing strategically spaced to highlight the project’s introspective lyrics.
“Going in, I usually know the five core songs that I’m going to have that are me, right now and then we pick the other ones from there. I have to be able to sing, by myself and play it. Maybe not that good… I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing a bit. I like sitting in the room and writing and not being the artist and watching the artist and trying to figure out what they need.”
McKenna notes that her vocals on the project are authentic, if not perfect. In some ways, that allows for her signature approach to writing songs. “If I could sing like Carrie Underwood, I wouldn’t write like I do. I’d write a lot differently, that’s for sure.”
It was that combination of a raw, honest vocal and insightful lyrics that drew Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell) to the project.
“Beth Laird sent me the demos, and when I heard the demos…[Lori] is able to paint such a visceral picture with everything she writes lyrically. I’m always attracted to that,” said Cobb. “I’m a terrible writer and lyricist. I admire people who are really strong with a pen. I heard her Massachusetts  record, which I adored. I think that’s the first thing I said to Beth, ‘I love her voice. I’m in. It was a no brainer for me.’”
“Wreck You,” written with Felix McTeigue, is about eight years old. “It was one of those songs that wouldn’t die,” says McKenna. “If a song is going to last eight years in my brain, it’s a good sign. I was texting back and forth the other day with Brandy Clark and we were talking about traveling and being away from home and your husband or wife or kids, and that’s always been my biggest burden as far as being blessed enough to have this job. That’s really where it came from, ‘What am I doing to all these people?’ I told her I wrote the song eight years ago and I still feel the same way. It’s that still-lingering emotion.”
The album’s title track, a metaphor for love, insecurity, and freedom, takes its title from an episode of Modern Family.
“I was folding laundry and a re-run was on TV,” McKenna recalled. “They start talking about tattoos they get and [a character] mentions ‘The Bird and The Rifle.’ Troy Verges and Caitlyn Smith were at my house writing that week. I knew [the song] would be [about] a woman and a man… I ended up with the spreading of the wings brings out the rifle in him. It presented itself that way. It’s love but how dangerous is it or how accepting is it?”
The Bird & The Rifle includes McKenna’s version of “Humble & Kind,” which Tim McGraw took to the pinnacle of the country charts—the first penned by a solo writer since Taylor Swift’s “Ours” in 2012. The song is a gentle reminder to listeners to work hard, but to be encouraging to those around them, without being preachy.
“I got my answer ready in case there was a press thing and somebody did say, there was this big headline that says, ‘You’re being preachy,’” says McKenna. “I was going to say, ‘Screw you, I have five kids, I can be preachy. I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to these five.’ Honestly, in this song, every line, I can tell you, like, what kid…I think I was lucky that it didn’t end up preachy because it could have.”
“I find it really uplifting in every possible way. I had this very encouraging spirit to it,” said Cobb.
Though McKenna regularly writes with country music’s top songwriters and artists, she says her children, who range in age from 12 to 27, are not impressed by their mother’s career.
“I’ve been doing this a while now so the littlest ones have grown up in this world,” she says.
Her career has brought some interesting experiences, however, such as when Swift was co-writing at McKenna’s home in Massachusetts.
“Neighbors called the police because there were bodyguards in Escalades around the neighborhood,” she recalls. “So they thought their kids were going to get kidnapped and called the police. Someone called me, and I was like, ‘No, it’s just Taylor Swift.’”
The Bird & The Rifle, out July 29 on CN Records, via Thirty Tigers, is McKenna’s 10th studio album and follows 2014’s acclaimed Numbered Doors.
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About the AuthorJessica Nicholson is a staff writer with MusicRow Enterprises. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine, TasteofCountry.com and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]
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