Recorded by Tim McGraw, “Humble and Kind” marks McKenna’s third win for MusicRow Song of the Year, following “Stealing Kisses” (2007, recorded by Faith Hill) and “Girl Crush” (2015, recorded by Little Big Town and co-written with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey).
McKenna will release a new solo album, The Bird & The Rifle, on July 29 via Creative Nation/Thirty Tigers. During a visit to Nashville, the Boston-based songwriter (and mother of five) chatted with MusicRow about first seeing the music video for “Humble and Kind,” working with producer/honorary brother Dave Cobb, and stapling the pages together for a new book inspired by “Humble and Kind.”
Read more about the award in the 2016 MusicRow Awards print issue, available now.
–––MusicRow: What does it mean to you to be embraced by the Nashville industry?
Lori McKenna: Nashville is such a close-knit town. What I have seen of this town is the way that writers support each other. Like with “Girl Crush,” we kind of knew we had something special because other songwriters reached out to say they loved the song and wished they had thought of that, or wished they were in the room that day. Songwriters are like that—very proud of each other when something happens. It gives Nashville a family feel, like we’re all on the same team.
What they will tell you about Nashville is, “You have to move here.” I’ve never moved here. I travel down a lot but I feel really lucky and blessed that this town has accepted me. I’m a very non-competitive person and I would just run for the hills if I ended up in a community of musicians that aren’t supportive of one another.
Describe the impact Tim McGraw and his family have made on your life?
The reason I have a job at all in this town is because of Faith and Tim. Missi Gallimore played them music of mine years ago. I remember we were on the Oprah show and she asked, “How have they changed your life?” I didn’t really know. It had all just happened. But time after time, they have continued to be amazing supporters—just like angels to me, both of them.
I know from going out on the road with them—the little bit of time I did—that they prioritize family. So it made sense to me to send Tim [“Humble and Kind”] after I wrote it. I felt like if someone was going to record the song it would be one of them. We have kids of similar ages, so we were going through things at the same time. So it’s just a matter of someone writing it down. It couldn’t have worked out any better. I couldn’t have asked for a better cut of the song. He made it so much bigger than this little prayer. And it’s affected all my kids.
How has “Humble and Kind” affected your kids?
I got to play the song at the Ryman for the Opry after I wrote it and all my kids came. They knew it was written for them and was a list of what I was thinking about for them. My kids pay attention to my songs, but I think this one hit a special spot for them because they know it’s completely driven by their influence on me or what my husband and I are trying to teach them.
My youngest said he passed some girl in the corridor at his school and she said, “Hey, David, always stay humble and kind.” [laughs]. He’s kind of proud of it in a certain way.
You wrote “Humble and Kind” alone. What is the significance of solo writes, in contrast to co-writes, which Nashville is known for?
As far as “Humble and Kind,” it really was because nobody was in my house that day. But it worked out in that I know where each line came from, or which conversation from which kid that line came from. If I was with someone else, you would have maybe had to sand those edges because they wouldn’t have had that conversation with my son. It worked out the way it did and I’m thankful for that. But co-writing is part of the community of this town, and why everyone supports each other. I can see if you lived here it would be hard to write alone.
Because I’ve always kept that artist side of me, I’ve learned that I need to write by myself sometimes. I need to not have anybody else in the room and make my own mistakes or get something good by myself. Sometimes I’ll have titles, and I’ll know that I could do it by myself or just that nobody else thought they were good titles. I make sure that I notch out time to keep that. Even if I don’t get a song, I still get that peace.
Were you pleased with the “Humble and Kind” video?
When Tim told me what they were doing, I couldn’t imagine what it would look like. I wrote that song at my dining room table one day when my kids were at school—which is why I am obsessed with the word “kitchen.” But my world is from the kitchen looking out. I don’t necessarily see the world much bigger than that.
It really blows my mind that you can take the same song, and the way I saw it, and put it in his mouth and have him see this whole world of things in it. I saw it as this small prayer for your kids that you would sing to put them to bed, or at the end of your show. He has a broader picture of who could listen, and be affected by the song. I had to watch it a couple times. It’s magical, and I love it.
What is your participation in the Humble and Kind book?
I wrote the epilogue and the lyrical content. Tim had the idea for people looking to give their kids a little token at graduation. It’s funny because when people say graduation you think of college and high school, and there are so many videos of kids singing the song. And even with the book, I thought, “What are they going to do when they get to the part about ‘sleeping with someone/and sleeping with someone you love’?” I realized they changed the word “sleeping” to “dancing.” I wouldn’t have even thought that! I thought, “They’re gonna have to staple the pages of the book together.” (laughs)
Dave Cobb worked with you on The Bird & The Rifle. How did his influence benefit the project?
I have four brothers and Dave reminds me of them. Not a specific one, but if I had a fifth brother it would be Dave. The minute I met Dave, I instantly liked him. I am not a person who could ever self-produce. I completely need help because I almost never hear anything else other than a voice and a guitar. I am very limited in that way. I liked the idea of taking these songs and plugging them into the way he works.
He played me a song off of that White Mansions record that he thought this record should sound like. He’s so inspired by that record, and it’s a big part of where his brain was at the time. When we went to record, they didn’t listen to any demos or work tape. I literally sang the song and then we went and played it. It was such a great experience because the lyric is very important to him. It was kind of like we recorded a live show, even though it was recorded over a few days because there was no rehearsal.
You’ve changed publishers since writing “Humble and Kind.” How has the transition been from UMPG Nashville to Creative Nation?
It’s always hard to move, unless you don’t have a great relationship with your publisher. I did. I love Universal. They were so great for me. The transition has been wonderful. These last two songs, “Girl Crush” and “Humble and Kind,” are Universal songs. The other thing about Nashville is it’s hard to burn a bridge—it’s a very nurturing town.
But really the biggest decision to move over was the artist piece of it and being in a smaller group. They are a family. But it was really Beth Laird. She is kind of magical to me. I’ve known her for years, when she was at BMI, yet she’s one of those people who can see what you’re doing and can kind of read your mind.
When I reached out to talk to her about my deal being up, and what I was doing that was and wasn’t working, she knew right away that I needed to pay more attention to the artist side of my career. Even though I would rather sit in my house and write songs all day and the artist thing is exhausting to me, for some reason I need the live part to feed the best writer in me.