In the past, I have been both correctly and incorrectly labeled as a Country music snob. Yes, I will be the first to say that mainstream Pop Country is about as far from actual Country music as you can get without a drum machine and a disco sample. Taylor Swift wins Country Song of the Year at the 2017 CMAs? F@#* you! So sure, I can be quite the snob when it comes to Country (or any other genre for that matter). Sorry, it’s just how I’m wired.
But, I’m not snobbish enough to shun Nashville in its entirety. There is great songwriting there if you know where to look. That place is the writer’s room. Too often, what comes out of studio writers’ rooms in Music City is, as David Alan Coe put it, “Solid Country Gold.” Then, it’s attached to an auto-tuned, underwear model of an “artist,” and churned through the bubble-gum scented and glitter-encrusted minds of producers and A&R men until what comes out on the other side sounds more like Cartier than Country.
But what happens when great Country songwriters are given the chance to lay down their own tracks? You get phenomenal art that sticks to the original vision of the artist. Lori McKenna’s hauntingly gorgeous song “The Bird and the Rifle” is just that.
McKenna has written some of the biggest hits in recent mainstream County, penning chart toppers like “Girl Crush” for Little Big Town, and “Humble Kind,” which was turned into a first rate Nashville turd when handed over to Tim McGraw, whose artistic height still remains playing MMA-obsessed Dallas in the forgettable film Four Christmases, a film saved solely on the acting chops of Dwight Yoakam (shout out!).
However, when McKenna is left to record her own work the result is incredible. “The Bird and the Rifle,” the title track for McKenna’s 2016 album, is an incredibly complex song, wrapped up in a minimalist musical approach. Its part fable, part allegory, and pure pathos, as McKenna spins a tale of an anthropomorphized bird and her significant, brooding other, the rifle. As symbols of hunter and prey, masculinity and femininity, domesticity and wildness, nature and nurture, and freedom and restraint, the bird and the rifle of the song’s narrative play off one another in a rich and downright literary tale. They are diametrically opposed, yet together nonetheless, like so many modern relationships. But, the real thematic beauty of McKenna’s song is not the way she elicits so much symbolism. Rather, it’s the way she gets so much human character development out of relatable details, evoking a modern tale of two people who have grown apart over the years:
There’s a bird making coffee in the kitchen,
And a rifle out back smoking cigarettes.
And he don’t really ever feel like talking,
No matter what she says.
Musically, “The Bird and the Rifle” delivers as well, with the focus exactly where it should be: McKenna’s incredible voice. There’s purity in her tone, but she’s also not afraid to get it a little dirty, especially in the emotional chorus, which sums up the psychological context of the song’s characters:
Something down on the ground
Won’t let her out, it holds her in.
He’s afraid if she flies
She’ll never come home again.
All this emotion in McKenna’s voice is backed by a sparse, but appropriate arrangement of guitar and bass, with some angelic bells thrown in decorate the landscape. The employment of Dave Cobb as producer on the album surely has a lot to do with the richness of the sound. Cobb, who likes to record albums live rather than piece tracks together, gets the most out of McKenna here, just as he has producing some of the best recent work from other Country music outliers, including Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. The faint, almost ghost-like choral harmonies in “The Bird and the Rifle” are certainly echoes of other Cobb-produced songs, like Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires.” The combination of Cobb and musicians who didn’t come up in the Nashville establishment, like Simpson, Isbell, and McKenna (She hails from and lives in Massachusetts), is proving to be a clear foil to the sickness slickness of Nashville.
There’s certainly a lot going on in “The Bird and the Rifle” for a song that on the surface may seem simplistic or even fairy-tale-like, but upon further listening it’s clear McKenna is working on a level that most Country songwriters just can’t reach. And, she’s certainly a testament to what a songwriter can do when left to their own methods, before Nashville has a chance to homogenize her work. In fact, it was difficult to pick just one song from the album to discuss, and I think there are several other gems here, all in a similar musical vein to the title track, particularly “Wreck You,” the album’s lead track.
Aside from its obvious artistry, perhaps one of the best parts of McKenna’s song, and overall album, is that it’s proof that the real heart of Country is still lurking down in the Pop-obsessed machine of Nashville. You just have to pull back the curtain to get to the people, like Lori McKenna, who are still in touch with what a Country song should be.
Patrick Barcus holds an MFA from Butler University and teaches writing at Indiana State University. He’s the front-man for the local band, Saturday Shoes, and also happens to be one hell of a poet.