It's difficult to know where to start when praising Lori McKenna's "The Tree." It's so good in so many ways. Artists like Little Big Town and Tim McGraw have benefited greatly from recording McKenna songs, yet it's unlikely many mainstream country music fans recognize her name. Fans of Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, two women that consistently and effectively write straight from the heart, would love McKenna's songs -- if only given the chance.
McKenna writes with incisive emotional intelligence, which is why "A Mother Never Rests," a song praising mothers, deftly avoids anything resembling cliché or simplistic sentimentality. Lines like, "She only sits for a minute/She's a hummingbird in the living room," paint an accurate picture that trumps any Hallmark card. McKenna closes with "Like Patsy Would," which finds her aiming to "sing it like Patsy (Cline) would." And to prove her point, she writes and performs a few songs that Cline would have been proud to sing, and she sings them just like a broken-hearted Cline. "You Won't Even Know I'm Gone," sung over a simple, finger-picked arrangement, is an underappreciated woman's goodbye note. It's as heartfelt and tragic as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." "You Can't Break A Woman" also details a bad relationship, only in the case, the woman has decided to stick it out and stay. "Whiskey breath don't faze her anymore," she concedes.
Two of the centerpiece songs concern aging. "People Get Old" grapples with the mystery of aging. "If we live long enough, the people we love get old," McKenna muses. This is track is followed by "Young and Angry Again," a song that longs for youthful days of irresponsibility. Country radio is oversaturated with songs about high school glory days, but McKenna reaches for feelings far deeper than mere memories of high school sweethearts; she wants to recapture an elusive mindset only found in the young.
The title track meditates on identity. As much as we like to think of ourselves as dynamic and ever-changing, the saying "The apple never falls far from the tree" oftentimes proves too true. No matter how far we may think we've strayed from our roots, we're sometimes more like that stable and unmovable tree than we'd like to believe. We rarely move too far away from the house that built us.
Lori McKenna's "The Tree" can be likened to a long and meaningful evening with a dear friend, where the conversation delves deeply into the most significant issues in life. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it heals, but it's always never less than unavoidably engaging.