Updated: Apr 3, 2019
In the spring of 2004, I was working with the gifted singer songwriter, Mary Gauthier. She was at my office telling me about a fellow Bostonian singer songwriter, Lori McKenna, who had a new album coming out on the same independent, northeast label, Signature Sounds that Mary had been on. We looked Lori up online and played a few songs off her BITTERTOWN album. I was immediately enamored with everything I heard. I loved the rawness and reality in her lyrics. I loved the power and clarity of her voice. I loved that her songs though not country would fit in the country format. I mentioned to Mary that if her songwriting were any indication, then she surely already had a publisher. Mary didn’t think so, so she rang her up. The three of us chatted about the Boston singer songwriter scene, Nashville’s music row scene, about Lori’s new record and the plans for it. Lori McKenna mentioned during the conversation, she wasn’t sure what a publisher did, but she thought she needed one. Before long we were meeting over lunch in the northeast with her two youngest children and her husband and talking about a publishing deal with Melanie Howard Music, Inc. We shook hands that day and agreed to work together.
I started pitching Lori’s songs around Music Row. One of the first A&R people to hear Lori’s songs was Missi Gallimore. Her husband, Byron, produced Tim McGraw and Faith Hill among others. Missi liked the songs she heard and said, they sound like something the Dixie Chicks would cut. I left and about a month later was in Missi’s office again, and I played a few more Lori McKenna songs. She informed me that Faith was finished, but she liked the songs. On my way back to the office, I got a call from Missi telling me to put my five favorite Lori McKenna songs on a cd and drop them off at her office by 2PM. I complied with her request.
What I didn’t know was that Tim and Faith, Byron and Missi were going to have dinner that night. Missi played Lori’s songs for Tim and Faith and they both were immediate fans of her writing. Missi called me at 7AM the next morning and told me that Faith was going in and cutting four of the five songs! I stammered, I thought Faith was done? Faith was so moved by Lori’s descriptive songwriting that she called a session to add four of the five songs on her WB album, FIREFLIES. As I recall, this was in early August. I officially signed Lori McKenna in December. We were off to the races and my pony was a thoroughbred!
When I met Lori McKenna, she was married with five children ranging in age from newborn to teenager. She and Gene, her husband, were living in a two bedroom house in their hometown with all the kids stacked on top of each other. They were a lively bunch crammed into a small space, but they were content. Once the kids were at school, Lori’s creative spark came to life. She was prolific. Nearly every day, I got a new song in my inbox. We chatted about her moving to Nashville, but honestly, I discouraged it. It was one thing to uproot one person, but to uproot the entire family seemed impractical. She lived in her hometown, married to her childhood sweetheart and had a large extended family nearby. Changing all of that at once seemed too much to change and doomed for failure. I became her eyes and ears on Music Row, her cheerleader. I proudly introduced Lori McKenna and her songs to the decision makers of the Nashville country music community.
During our early tenure of working together, Lori was introduced to producer, Paul Worley and Bill Bennett who were running Warner Bros. Records in Nashville. They came to a show at the Bluebird where Lori was playing in a round. They asked her what she wanted and she said to be a good mother to her children. They asked if she wanted a record deal, she said yes with the stipulation that she couldn’t be away from her children for more than a few days at a time. In due time, Warner Bros. bought the Bittertown album and signed Lori to a record deal going forward. Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw were brought onboard to produce and thus her Warner Bros. project, Unglamorous began.
It was early in our tenure that Faith Hill’s Fireflies album was released. Being the star that she is, an offer to be on the Oprah show soon followed. Faith wanted to introduce Lori to a larger audience and invited her to be on the Oprah show with her. I kept the offer a secret until Lori’s next trip to Nashville. Oprah was sending a team in to cut some B-roll footage for the segment. Lori and I went to the production facility under a false pretense. I’m not sure how she didn’t figure something was up because we first went to a stylist and had her hair cut and styled. Next came the make-up crew. I believe I told her she was going to be on camera talking about Faith Hill cutting her songs thus the reason for all the fuss. When Faith walked in with cameras, lighting and sound crew in tow, Lori started crying. There went the make-up! Lori and Faith talked about their children, their husbands, the songs and Faith asked Lori to appear with her on the Oprah show. We were all crying by then.
About a month later, Lori and Faith were on the Oprah show with Faith singing a Lori song and Lori got to sing too! It was a great beginning to what has become a stellar career for Lori McKenna. You don’t often have that level of success so quickly in the music business, and sustaining it can be incredibly difficult, but when you are gifted and the stars align it can be done.
I remember giving Lori her first royalty check. I told her to come in my office and sit down. She was nervous. She asked me if I was unhappy with her writing when I handed her an envelope to open. She nervously asked if I was going to terminate her writing deal. With trembling hands she opened it and started crying. Shortly thereafter she and her family moved in to a much larger house in her hometown where she still lives. It’s a dream come true for me to make the dreams come true for others.
Respectfully written 2/6/2019