When the Country Music Association (CMA) solicited first-round submissions in July for its 50th annual awards, it seemed a no-brainer that “Humble and Kind,” a Tim McGraw single that offers a cultural primer for strong character, would get heavy consideration for song of the year.
Songs with social relevance invariably have a leg up in the trophy battles, and when they capture the mood of a large swath of people — as “Humble and Kind” did, emerging in the midst of increasing public chaos — those songs have an almost unfair advantage over competition that merely entertains.
“We found out that ‘Humble and Kind’ was going to be No. 1 on the Sunday that we woke up to Orlando,” says songwriter Lori McKenna. “It was such a strange day for me because you wanted to celebrate, but it was such a heavy day for everybody.”
McKenna has accidentally set herself up for a similar juxtaposition. The Bird & the Rifle, a 10-song album that explores gritty life issues with an uncanny honesty, arrives at retail on July 29, the day after the Democratic National Convention comes to a close. Its title track employs a firearm as symbolism in a challenged relationship — the man’s powerful, dangerous essence shuts down the woman’s freedom of self-expression — and it hints at the complexities of a hot-button issue.
“I guess I’ve sort of blocked out the fact that I’m putting out this record with a big picture of a gun on it,” says McKenna. ?“I guess somebody could look at that art and think, ‘Is she making a statement about guns?’ When I think of that rifle, I think of that guy, and I don’t think of anything else but the metaphor that we attached to it and where it came from, which was the mom and the daughter from the punchline of [a] joke [on Modern Family]. I just think of it as a relationship.”
McKenna is, in fact, a master at exploring relationships. She and her co-writers expressed jealousy with a literate sensibility in Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and captured the pain of a dying flame in another LBT single, “Your Side of the Bed,” that nabbed a Grammy nomination. She likewise had a hand in Hunter Hayes’ plea for passion, “I Want Crazy,” and in RaeLynn’s gender celebration “God Made Girls.”
The Bird & the Rifle hinges on relationships with significant others, with community and with the self, the songs full of rich detail that paint emotional pictures, often without specifying the feelings in question. Stale disappointment rings through “Giving Up On Your Hometown,” frustration forms the foundation for the opening “Wreck You” and delusion underscores the couple in “Old Men Young Women.” McKenna’s raw delivery is perfectly suited for the material, much the way that the hard-edged vocals of Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson were well-equipped to convey the detailed imagery of their finely tuned work.
Producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell) framed her voice in The Bird & the Rifle with tremolo guitars and the occasional string arrangement, carefully allowing the words themselves to maintain the listener’s focus.
“I couldn’t be happier the way everything has happened,” says McKenna. “The process has been so joyful around all these really sad songs.”
The Massachusetts-based McKenna has been recording her own material since 2000 with one project, 2007’s Unglamorous, released on Warner Music Nashville. The rest of her albums have landed in the marketplace via independent labels, although The Bird & the Rifle will be issued by her publisher, Creative Nation — owned by songwriter Luke Laird (“Talladega,” “Head Over Boots”) and his wife, Beth Laird — in conjunction with Thirty Tigers.
“It was probably the shortest phone call any artist has had with their lawyer after looking at a contract,” says McKenna, chuckling about the deal. “It almost leans more in my favor than the label’s.”
McKenna is touring behind the album, though purposely keeping her schedule light — no more than five shows in a single month — so she can stay focused on the relationships that are most important in her life: her connection to her family and her connection to her writing.
That writing has served her well. “Girl Crush” spent 13 weeks atop Hot Country Songs in 2015, winning a Grammy for best country song and the CMA’s song of the year trophy. “Humble and Kind” became the first song penned by just one songwriter to reach No. 1 on Hot Country Songs since Taylor Swift’s “Ours” on March 31, 2012. One industry group (subscribers to the Nashville magazine Music Row) has already recognized “Humble” as the song of the year. If the CMA follows suit, McKenna would become the first woman to win that trophy in back-to-back years. No writer has claimed that category consecutively since Vince Gill did so three times from 1991-1993 with “When I Call Your Name,” “Look at Us” and “I Still Believe in You.”
“My friends talk about this, and I can’t listen,” says McKenna. “I don’t want to put it in my heart. Music has given me so many lessons, so many gifts that I didn’t deserve or expect. I never want to get to the point where I think I’m going to be awarded with something that doesn’t happen and then have that feeling of, ‘Aw, I thought that was going to happen.’ ”
But it’s hard to picture McKenna allowing herself to get too far removed from reality. The flawed people and challenged relationships on The Bird & the Rifle are the work of someone committed to the truth, even when it’s painful. In fact, her reaction to an unflattering truth is telling — a Billboard Country Update reader expressed her distaste for “Humble and Kind.” The song, says the reader, is a list of common-sense rules for living that we all ought to live by already. McKenna doesn’t flinch at the criticism — refreshingly, she’s amused by it.
“I see what she’s saying, and really, that was the point of it,” allows McKenna. “I want to say that to my friends sometimes — like when you’re sitting around and someone says, ‘Well, this happened, and this happened, and we’re getting divorced because I cheated.’ It’s like, ‘Well, don’t cheat!’ We all have to be -eminded of these things sometimes. That was the point.”