Lori McKenna can mint country hits out of everyday talk, just not every day. On a recent visit to the hair salon, with her head thrown back in the sink, she was listening for lyrics over a rush of warm water, hoping that the talky woman in the next chair might volunteer a few magic words. Slosh-slosh-slosh. Blah-blah-blah. And ... nope. Instead of going home with a new hook in her head, McKenna had to settle for some new color in her hair.

  But, this is how her songwriting often begins - eavesdropping and people-watching while she runs her daily errands.

  "We're all people-watchers in some way," McKenna says over the telephone from her living room in Massachusetts. "We see a person, and we make a story up in our head ... I don't know if empathy is the right word, but we develop some curiosity in one another."

  McKenna's exquisite new album, "The Tree," directs that curiosity toward families - her family, other people's families, imagined families, families where the kids grow up too fast, and the parents grow old too soon, families that make her new songs feel as mundane and urgent as life and death. And while many have praised McKenna for her ability to elevate our most piddling pedestrian life-stuff to profound heights, for her, there's no heavy lifting involved. When the ordinary is already extraordinary, the music is all around us.

  "I'm not a truth-seeker. I'm not someone who wants to go around the world and find out why we exist," she says. "For me to get sick of writing about my neighbors?" Even over the phone, you can hear her politely shaking her head. She can't imagine that.

'Nashville called me'

  McKenna got her start on the New England folk circuit back in the '90s, but everything changed in 2004 when her fourth album, "Bittertown," began to circulate in Nashville's most exclusive corridors. Before long, a music publisher phoned to say that Faith Hill would like to hear every song McKenna had ever written. Less than a year later, she was sitting on a plush couch in a bright television studio, chit-chatting with Hill and Oprah Winfrey. "Literally, Nashville called me," McKenna says.
Now, I know that never happens.

  Thirteen years later, McKenna has become formidable in country music, co-writing nearly 100 songs a year. Astonishingly, that qualifies as below-average on Music Row, but the publishers don't push. They know that this is the pace that helped McKenna pen "Girl Crush," a love-triangular waltz for Little Big Town, co-drafted with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose; not to mention "Humble and Kind," a human decency anthem that Tim McGraw carried to the top of the country charts in 2016. (The song's parting lyrics seem to accrue virtue as America grows more cruel: "When you get where you're going/Turn right back around/And help the next one in line/Always stay humble and kind.")

  In addition to farming them out, McKenna occasionally includes her biggest songs on her own albums - "Humble and Kind" anchored 2015's "The Bird and the Rifle" - but they usually only make the radio when someone else is singing them. And that's fine by her.

 "I know this sounds like bull----, but I swear, I just want to write good songs and be proud of myself," McKenna says. "And I will say that I get proud of myself pretty easily. Like, if the house is clean when I go to bed at night, I'm so excited."

  Her songs can start anywhere, but many of them get finished in her basement in Stoughton, Mass. - the same small town where McKenna met her husband, all the way back in the third grade. Down in the basement, McKenna says she likes to come up with a song title, (she was hoping to catch one back at the salon), then work from there, strumming chords and mumbling melodies until her gestures start to point toward a story. For all of the precision and sophistication in her storytelling, here's the surprising thing: A song's narrative arc often follows the sound of whichever syllables happen to materialize in her mouth.

  "The rhyme speaks to where the story lands," McKenna says. "When I get going, something rhymes with something else, and suddenly this isn't a song about elephants, it's a song about soup. It has more control than I do, and I learned very early on to trust it."

  Other times - and this seems even more mysterious - her characters' fates are sealed before the tune even gets underway.