Lori McKenna's life story -- now a company-sanctioned, Oprah-certified backstory -- is a good one: a 38-year-old plumber's wife and mother of five from Stoughton, Mass., is discovered by country superstar Faith Hill, who records three of McKenna's songs for a chart-topping album. Hill then takes her out as opening act on a massive concert tour and enlists her husband, Tim McGraw, to co-produce the major-label debut. Warner Bros. is milking it: In the glossy press materials, McKenna's minivan -- loaded with 150,000 carpool-ferrying miles -- is referred to with something comically close to reverence.
But the fairy tale only takes you so far. McKenna's superb new album, "Unglamorous," which comes out today, will take her the rest of the way.
Not a few folks were concerned that the Nashville machine would douse McKenna's earthy charms with slick, radio-friendly production, that she'd be primped and groomed for a Faith Hill-style crossover. But McKenna, a staple for the past decade on Boston's singer-songwriter circuit, hasn't sacrificed a shred of integrity on "Unglamorous." It's a little more country, for sure, and a lot more anthemic, thanks to the stable of seasoned session players McGraw and veteran co-producer Byron Gallimore brought in to lay down tracks. The subtle twang that crept into the smart folk and finely wrought Americana on McKenna's four previous albums (which, according to Nielsen Soundscan, have sold a combined 54,000 copies) has been shined up and sharpened, but the endeavor still feels natural.
And that's the bottom line: "Unglamorous" is signature Lori McKenna. Her vivid miniatures of complicated intimacies and everyday inadequacies slip between the cracks of country, folk, and rock, and they're as graceful as they are unflinching. McKenna's flanked by mandolin, pedal steel, and McGraw's husky harmonies on "Drinkin' Problem," a familiar-seeming tale of hangovers and sick days that turns poignant with the revelation that "I never touch the stuff/ But honey, I'll tell you what/ You can't count all the ways it touches me." Hill pitches in with powerhouse backing vocals on "Falter," an ode to the town loner, and Kelly Willis adds a dulcet layer to "I'm Not Crazy," a gentle defense of "the dull sweetness in this life of ours."
The title track is an ebullient, guitar-stoked celebration of jelly glasses of wine and wool socks on the bedroom floor: "No frills, no fuss, perfectly us/ Unglamorous," McKenna sings in her unvarnished voice. Thankfully, before the joys of simple domesticity wear out their welcome, the artist moves on to "Your Next Lover," a brilliantly clear-eyed sketch of a woman waiting for her man to move on, and "Confetti," where McKenna isolates the fallout of a relationship that has turned cold: "All of the bright colors that lived inside of me/ Are now just tiny little pieces of who I used to be."
Ozzie and Harriet it's not. Wise, warm, and wonderful to listen to it is. You have to wonder if it's a mistake to market McKenna so single-mindedly as a stay-at-home mom who hit the Nashville jackpot. She's much better, and "Unglamorous" is far deeper than that.