About three years ago, Gauthier gave a copy of 'Bittertown' to Melanie Howard, the widow of legendary Nashville songwriter/producer Harlan Howard and owner of her late husband's publishing company, in the hopes of drumming up some publishing interest for her old friend.
Howard was floored by McKenna's material, contacting her within a couple weeks of hearing 'Bittertown' and telling McKenna she wanted to pitch her songs around Nashville.
A month later, Howard met with Hill, who was just completing work on a new album, in order to play her some of McKenna's songs. The impact they had on Hill was just as immediate; although she was essentially finished with her album at that point, she took four of McKenna's songs into the studio, three of which wound up on the album proper, one of which became the album's title, "Fireflies,"(the fourth was used as an iTunes exclusive).
After "Fireflies" was released in 2005, Hill began telling the story of how she had discovered McKenna's songs and her cottage industry career - which had been conducted in the same small house that she and Gene had bought just after getting married - began to blossom into something quite a bit more involved.
Warner Brothers Nashville called with thoughts of doing an album, which she accepted (Warner reissued "Bittertown," without changes), then came her next opportunity of a lifetime - an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show alongside Hill, whom she had only just met.
"I was sort of in awe of (Faith) for awhile because I was trying to figure out why she liked what I did - it makes perfect sense to me now because I know her so well now, but I didn't at the time," says McKenna. "When we went to do Oprah, it was only the second time I'd ever met Faith, and I was still trying to figure out what she saw in what I did and why she was attracted to it."
For McKenna, the payoff in all this was the chance to get back in the studio for her fifth and most widely released album to date. When it came time to record "Unglamorous," McKenna was adamant about the things that she wanted to happen when she initially spoke with Nashville veteran Byron Gallimore, who co-produced Unglamorous with Tim McGraw.
"I talked to Byron a few weeks before we went in, and I was insistent that I was going to play the guitar on my record, and I know I'm not that great a player, but I've always played the acoustic tracks on every other record I've made, and this should be no different, and he was like, 'Absolutely!'" recalls McKenna.
"Then I got down there, and the first couple of days in the studio, we had Darrell Scott playing acoustic, and I wouldn't get off the couch. Byron was like, 'Get in there and start playing.' And I was like, 'I'm not moving.'"
"Unglamorous" is clearly the best work of McKenna's career, which is a strong statement considering everything that has come before it. McKenna's songwriting style is neither flashy nor obvious, and her songwriting subjects are fairly close to home, and while every song on "Unglamorous" is sung in the first person, part of McKenna's innate skill is in being able to inhabit a story in order to sing it without having to actually live it.
She will admit to a certain amount of autobiography - "I Know You" is a love song to Gene, whom she met in third grade, and the album's title song is a musical laundry list of all the elements of a normal life.
One of the album's highlights is the deeply moving "Leaving This Life," McKenna's reflections on her mother and the heart wrenching realization that having her own children has given her perspective on how her mother must have felt about having to unwillingly and forever leave her children behind.
McKenna had written many times about her mother in the past and even had an alternately titled version of "Leaving This Life" in her notebook that she didn't even particularly like, but she felt she had explored the topic quite enough.
Collaborator Mark D. Sanders, who experienced a similar loss in his childhood, told her he wanted to write a song about her mother with her, and while she was reticent to do it, she showed him her unfinished song, which ultimately evolved into the beautiful and tearful track that closes the album.
"He got me to the place where the song is now," says McKenna of Sanders' input. "It's such a good example of co-writing gone good. It's one of those things that I never would have gotten. I was having trouble all day writing. I was like, 'Dude, I cannot sing that.' And I literally just started playing it out right before the tour, because the label and everybody was like, 'Are you gonna do 'Leaving This Life'?' And I was like, 'I'll do it some nights, but I can't do it other nights, and I can't think about it too much.' I've lost it a few times playing it live, and thankfully I almost always have the band with me, and they just play until I figure it out again. I wouldn't have put it on the record if my whole family didn't say it was okay."