The Writers Round with Lori McKenna

This month, Lori McKenna sheds some light into her life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind two of her many hits including "Humble & Kind" and "Girl Crush."

Written by Annie Reuter
The Writers Round with Lori McKenna
Photo by Becky Fluke

Welcome to the Writers Round, a new monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey. This month, Lori McKenna sheds some light into her life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind two of her many hits including “Humble & Kind” and “Girl Crush.”

The youngest of six children, Lori McKenna grew up writing songs in her journals. Her two older brothers were songwriters and as a result, she thought that everybody wrote songs. It wasn’t until she got to high school that she realized songwriting wasn’t the norm.

McKenna remembers writing songs as early as twelve years old and the first one she wrote, a track titled “Take,” she first presented to her brothers.

“It was a country song and my brother, Richie, was like, ‘How in the world did you just end up writing a country song?'” she tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “We didn’t grow up listening to country music. We grew up listening to songwriters; James Taylor, Carly Simon, Neil Young. I remember my brother being like, ‘What just happened? How does that come out of you?'”

She kept writing but never thought to pursue music professionally until she was 27 and her sister-in-law talked her into doing an open mic night in the Boston area. (McKenna still lives in Massachusetts with her family and five children). The open mic night was successful as the man who ran it invited McKenna back to perform.

McKenna has since made a thriving career as a songwriter with her home base in Massachusetts where all her siblings live within 45 minutes of each other. While many of her peers reside in Nashville, McKenna instead makes several trips a year to Music City to co-write and when she’s not in Tennessee she writes by herself back home. Her writing credits have not suffered as they include songs recorded by Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Little Big Town, Hunter Hayes, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, among others.

“It would be hard for the kids to leave their cousins or their school or for my husband to relocate and all that, and it’s worked out really well for me to just travel back and forth to Nashville because I’m not an everyday writer,” she admits. “I’m not really built to write every day. Some of my friends are and they write one or two songs a day. I need to simmer on things more.”

Simmering on songs is suiting McKenna just fine as she recently celebrated a No. 1 with “Humble & Kind,” a song she wrote with her five children in mind that Tim McGraw took all the way to the top of the country charts. It also marks the first time in over four years a song went to No. 1 with one writer. (The last was Taylor Swift’s “Ours” in 2012).

Cover art courtesy Sacks & Co.

Cover art courtesy Sacks & Co.

During a recent performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, McKenna says she wanted to write a list of things to tell her children so she wouldn’t be accused of not sharing important life lessons later on.

“I had the title and I knew I wanted it to be things I wanted my kids to know,” she says, explaining her process. “Once you get there, there’s a lot of information. You could overshoot the song. It was more about editing and taking out ‘put the toilet seat down.’ That didn’t necessarily have to be in it.”

McKenna says that the song itself is fairly simple and the list of hopes and dreams was easy to write as a parent. While she always starts with verses when it comes to songwriting, McKenna said for “Humble & Kind” the chorus came first.

“I knew that I lucked out in finding that chorus, to be honest, and then everything else, like I said, was easy to put in there,” she explains. “It was just a matter of editing it down and putting it all in the order that worked in my head the right way.”

A personal song for McKenna and her family, “Humble & Kind” is also featured on her tenth solo release The Bird & the Rifle which is available this Friday (July 29). Of the song, she says McGraw saw the bigger picture.

“He can sing anything. He’s Tim McGraw and he can do whatever he wants. For him to want to stop and make a movement out of that song, I think it speaks to his character and how much he’s put into it and is putting into the song. It’s just amazing,” she says.

Another record that left its mark on the country community is “Girl Crush,” a song McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey wrote together who are also known as songwriting trio the Love Junkies. McKenna says that if there were to be any other members of the Love Junkies it would be Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town, who knew they had to cut “Girl Crush” the moment they heard it and eventually took the song to No. 1.

“Because no men are allowed to be in the Love Junkies,” McKenna states, laughing. “We always tease Jimi [Westbrook of Little Big Town], because Jimi’s like, ‘I want to write with you all.’ We’re like, ‘No, you can’t.'”

McKenna remembers coming in with the title “Girl Crush” on one of her visits to Nashville. When she brought it up to Rose and Lindsey, Lindsey sang the first four lines as they are heard on the song today.

“They’re my best friends to write with, and I just love those women so much. That was really a crazy song in the way that we didn’t even have time to think about what we had,” she admits. “We thought maybe nobody else would even like it. We didn’t know because it’s such a ballad. It’s old school and has this very modern term mixed with an old school feel. Then that morning at 11, Karen and Kimberly from Little Big Town were coming to write with us, so we literally recorded it and put it aside, and then Karen and Kimberly walked in and said, ‘What have you guys been writing?’ Then we played it for them.”

“Girl Crush” has since gone on to win a Grammy for Best Country Song as well as CMA Awards for Single of the Year and Song of the Year.

While she has seen success as a songwriter, McKenna is also an artist and she is about to release her tenth record, something she can’t believe. She describes the Dave Cobb-produced album The Bird & the Rifle as being “lush” and “very live sounding” and, unsurprisingly, McKenna has had a hand in writing each of the 10 tracks. Some songs are more somber than others, like “Wreck You,” a song that details a couple struggling in their relationship. As McKenna shares, she often finds it easier to write a sad song than a happy song.

“I think they’re very therapeutic, so I always tease that sad words rhyme easier than happy words, and there’s a lot more information to work within the sad department. But, I’m also drawn to sad songs in general because I think they make you feel something sometimes that you weren’t expecting to feel, and that’s always a good thing in music,” she explains.

McKenna says she never had a Plan B — music was always No. 1 for her. She adds that music has always give her much more than she’s given it and she’d still be writing if she didn’t have a publishing deal and no one wanted to cut her songs.

“I can always do it myself. I think that’s an important part of the way that I write, in the way that I know I can interpret it myself at some point,” she says of also having her artist career. “Sometimes young writers will ask me, ‘What would you say to a new writer?’ You have to be able to do it yourself, because at the end of the day, that’s why you’re doing it. You have to do it for your heart and you have to be able to interpret it through your heart.”

Lori McKenna’s The Bird & the Rifle is out Friday (July 29).