Lori McKenna titled her album 1988 after the year she married her husband, Gene, yet the 10 songs within also serve as a love letter to lifelong friendships, people she’s lost, and her family. Recorded with producer Dave Cobb in Savannah, Georgia, 1988 naturally has its nostalgic moments, even if not every ending is a happy one.
With more of an electric edge than her past projects, 1988 feels in step with classic ‘90s albums by Sheryl Crow or Gin Blossoms, where the lyrics pulled you in as much as the melody or production. Playing together on acoustic guitars while facing one another in the studio, McKenna and Cobb tracked the album live, giving it a feeling of immediacy and authenticity.
“I was trying to let my age and experience guide me through making a record I wished I’d made when I was younger,” she explains. “I really wanted it to sound like if I made a rock record in the ‘90s, and then I remembered that I made my first album in 1998. There’s something so 30 years ago in my head about this record. In a way I wish I could start again and know what I know now.”
Back in the early days of her career, McKenna immersed herself in Boston’s singer-songwriter scene and self-released her debut album, Paper Wings & Halos. After issuing a couple of CDs on a New England folk label, the Nashville songwriting community discovered her singular ability to write about complicated emotions through simple words. Meanwhile, one of the lessons she’s learned from writing in Nashville is evident on the album’s first single, “Killing Me,” which she co-wrote with frequent collaborators Hillary Lindsey (who also sings on the track) and Luke Laird.
“I had that turn — ‘Would it kill you to be happy because trying to make you happy is killing me.’ It’s like, ‘Pushing this boulder up the mountain is killing me. Can’t you just carry yourself for a minute?’” she says. “I know that feeling of being in that relationship with someone, and I know feeling of being in that relationship with myself, too. The play on words and the turns — that all came from learning how great songwriters in Nashville write, because they’re so good at that. They’re so clever. When those things end up in the room, I always try to pay attention.”
However, fifteen years later, when Covid hit, McKenna often wrote alone, four or five days a week. One of the first songs to come from that solitude is “The Old Woman in Me,” which conveys the mutual respect between her current self and the imagined version that she hopes to meet someday.
“There’s always a lot of discussion of, ‘What would I tell my younger self?’ I’d had one of those discussions one day, and thought, ‘Well, if we can write a letter to our younger selves, we can surely think about our older selves,” she recalls. “It was one of those songs that I knew right away was probably not going to be for pitch. I wouldn’t be able to change the lyrics for it to apply to someone younger. It’s one of those songs that wanted to be my story and hopefully a story for the people that identify with me. I think we all focus on when we were younger, so it was fun to flip it. You end up developing this character that is you, that you actually really like.”
McKenna teamed up with her son, Chris McKenna, to write “Happy Children,” which bestows perhaps the kindest of wishes. In addition, “Days of Honey” and the title track offer an up-tempo yet realistic view of an enduring marriage. Describing a social landscape familiar to anyone from McKenna’s generation, “Growing Up” emerged from the bittersweet phone calls and text threads that sought to bring comfort as her closest friends were grieving the loss of their parents.
Throughout the second half of 1988, McKenna continues to delve into difficult situations with strength as well as sadness. “Wonder Drug” will resonate with anyone who’s watched someone battle opioid addiction, while “Town in Your Heart” unfolds like a letter to a brother who’s succumbed to alcoholism, written by the brother who’s left behind. Asked about her willingness to draw on such heavy themes, McKenna responds, “I think that I like the truth in writing songs like that — that unfortunate truth that everybody encounters in their life.”
Although McKenna has won three Grammys in the Best Country Song category, among many other industry awards, she doesn’t spare herself from scrutiny. In “Letting People Down,” she’s standing in her garage, staring at milk crates full of trophies, and “wondering how it’s all such a blessing and why it’s all so damn hard.” 1988 then concludes with “The Tunnel,” a poignant and devastating narrative that ultimately ends with an uplifting message. The swell of a gospel chorus serves as a dynamic counterpoint to the intimacy of the lyrics, and it’s a striking contrast that McKenna plans to carry out on tour.
“I like doing solo shows, but I really like it when we’re all together,” she says. “That’s another reason why this record sounds the way it does. I really wanted it to sound like a band, because it’s so fun to play live that way. You think of Jason Isbell’s song, ‘Traveling Alone,’ and I never did that, but all of my friends did. I’m a serious homebody, so I don’t love being gone, but I love playing the shows. And I also love Nashville and I love chasing songs with new people. And I feel like I really lucked out in the fact that I get to still make records. I literally cannot believe how lucky I am.”