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Music Review: Lori McKenna has become a must-hear songwriter

This cover image released by CN Records via Thirty Tigers shows "The Tree," a release by Lori McKenna. (CN Records via Thirty Tigers via AP)

(AP) -- Lori McKenna "The Tree" (CN Records via Thirty Tigers)

    It's rare to read about Lori McKenna without hearing that she got married at 19 and had the first of her five children at 20. And since her latest album, "The Tree," is a canon of songs about family, it would be easy to pigeonhole her as a mom singing sweetly about a world she knows well.

    That would all be true, but it shouldn't diminish her impact. McKenna also happens to be a brilliant songwriter.

    On "The Tree," she matches melody and mood to simple imagery that lets listeners see the picture she's creating. A mother who can't sit still, for example, is a hummingbird in a living room. A father's billfold in church conveys greater significance than the simple image suggests.

    The new album follows closely on "The Bird and the Rifle," McKenna's 2016 gem that netted three Grammy nominations and widespread acclaim. The praise was well-deserved, but this might be a better album.

    Working with producer Dave Cobb, a master at getting the most out of well-crafted songs, McKenna builds on her reputation as a songwriter that other songwriters notice. Her singing is straight-ahead honest, her eyes fixed on the word-portrait she's painting.

    In the album's first single, "People Get Old," a heart-rending masterpiece about aging and the passing of time, the heat is in the lyrics.

    "Every line on your face tells a story somebody knows," she sings.

    In McKenna's hands, the story aches with beauty.

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