…Affirmation, baby. Sometimes.
We all do– in any line of work or walk of life. Sometimes you just need to hear someone tell you “hey– good job.”
It’s especially true in my line of work. I take my ideas, thoughts, emotions, and experiences, rhyme a few words and wrap a melody around them, and play them for total strangers. I’m not talking about sharing my grocery list here… I’m talking about laying a serious portion of who I am and what makes me tick on the line for people to hear.
For some people to pick apart, even.
It’s exhilarating and it’s scary. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking. Sometimes you vacillate between the two in a matter of a few minutes.
People come out to your show, and that’s their way of telling you “hey– good job.”
People buy your record and then share it with a friend, and that’s their way of telling you “hey– good job.”
So much of my affirmation comes from the people with whom I’m lucky enough to connect via my music. They’re on the receiving end of my processes. I create, I record, I perform, I get feedback.
Every once in a while, though, I get a different kind of affirmation. It’s that of my peers. When I played a show with Bob Livingston last week in Roswell, NM and he complemented my show, that was affirmation. When Walt or Susan want to write a song with me, that’s affirmation. When someone in a meeting in Nashville says “dang, that’s a good song,” that’s affirmation.
Today Lori McKenna released her new record “Numbered Doors” and I have to say, it might be the best work of her recording life. If you’ve heard any of her past work you know that what I just said has a tall order to fill. If you haven’t heard any of her work, you need to change that immediately.
Here– I’ll tell you how I first heard Lori’s work.
I had pulled out of my driveway on Merriweather St in New Braunfels as a song came on KNBT. I turned right onto Academy. I turned left onto Elliot Knox Blvd… and I was hearing this song. The song got to the chorus. There was a place called Aztec Tool Rental on my left (it’s not around anymore). The sky was overcast. I was hearing this song. As the first chorus ended I took my first right and parked on a side street. I had to listen to this song. It was so perfectly written– so sharp. So beautiful in a painful kind of way. When it ended I texted my friend Mattson Rainer, who is the brains behind KNBT, and asked “who sings that song– Your Next Lover?” He responded, “Lori McKenna”.
And that was that. I didn’t add those details for dramatic effect– I added them because I completely remember that moment in my life. Music is cool like that. So, that’s how I heard of Lori McKenna.
A few years later I was sitting in a nice office with tall ceilings just off Music Row in Nashville playing songs on my guitar for Whitney Williams. Whitney was the Creative Director at Universal Music Publishing Group. After about 4 songs she asked me, and I quote this exactly, “would you ever consider writing with Lori McKenna?”
“Would I ever consider it–” I asked, incredulously.
“You’d have to go to Boston, though,” she continued.
“Would I ever consider it? Uh, would SHE ever consider writing with ME?”
Whitney assured me that she would. I had a few shows booked in New York City two months away, so we arranged to tack a few more days onto the trip.
In Boston– Stoughton, to be exact– I met Lori. At her house. We wrote a cool song called “When Salvation Finds Me” the first day. The second day we wrote “Rose of Jericho” and “Sleeping Alone”.
That’s a lot of backstory… and this is already longer than I thought it would be, but what the hell, right?
I went to dinner with Lori and her family at the end of the second day of writing, and her husband Gene ingeniously tricked me into letting him pick up the check. He told me I really needed to check out the bathroom. So– I did, expecting something interesting. Sometimes places put old Playboy or Sports Illustrated covers on the wall as wallpaper. I think that’s what I was expecting.
It was a normal bathroom. It didn’t even have those touchless paper towel dispensers. It was totally unremarkable.
While I was in there, they picked up the check. Bamboozled.
OK, enough of the backstory. I recorded “Rose of Jericho” and “Sleeping Alone” on Wide Listener. I play both songs almost every night, though I tend to save “Sleeping Alone” for nights when the audience is especially attentive. KNBT even played “Rose of Jericho” a bunch. That’s full circle right there.
Today Lori released a new album called Numbered Doors. The songs are incredible– but that’s what Lori usually puts on her records. Mark Erelli, someone whom I had sort-of met years and years before when we both put out a record called Hillbilly Pilgrim in 2003 (his was MUCH better) produced it. It’s sparse and lovely. It’s painfully poignant. It’s her best work yet.
Numbered Doors also includes Lori’s version of “Rose of Jericho” (hers is MUCH better).
We all need a little affirmation, baby. Sometimes. (I don’t know why I keep phrasing it like that– I hear Mick Jagger singing that line every time I type it, although I know he hasn’t.)
When one of the absolute best songwriters walking around on the face of the earth records a song that the two of you wrote– that’s it. That’s the highest form of it. That’s the “hey– good job” to the one millionth degree.
Professionally, it’s the coolest moment of my songwriting career.
Personally, it makes me tear up a bit.
Most days I believe I’m doing the right thing with my life– writing songs. Some days I think about what my life would be like if I were doing something else with it. Today is one of those days where an army of a thousand angry soldiers couldn’t make me renounce my choice.
This was a really long way to say “you really need to buy this record.”
This was probably not a long enough thank you letter to Lori McKenna for recording our song.
It may seem like a small thing to you, but it’s a monumentally huge thing to me.
Would I consider writing with Lori McKenna.