Over the past decade, Lori McKenna has developed the reputation as one of country music’s top singer-songwriters. With cuts by such acts as Hunter Hayes and Faith Hill, she is perhaps best known as one of the Grammy-winning writers of “Girl Crush,” the massive hit from Little Big Town. She also found herself in the spotlight as a solo writer for penning Tim McGraw’s recent chart-topper, “Humble and Kind.” As McKenna gears up for the release of her Dave Cobb-produced upcoming album The Bird & The Rifle (out July 29), Billboard spoke to her about why she has no plans to move to Nashville from her native Massachusetts anytime soon and how ordinary people can make for extraordinary songs.
Home is definitely where her heart is.
Though she has written for many of Music City’s biggest artists, she chooses to continue to reside in her native state of Massachusetts. “They can’t get rid of me up here, at least for now,” she says. “It’s been good for me. I know myself as a writer to the point that if I lived in Nashville, I would want to write a song every day because of all the great songwriters that live there. I’m not an everyday writer. I need to sit on things emotionally, and I’m not good at that. I need some breaks in between. I think that with that, the kids still being in school here, and my husband’s job and our families being here, this is where I need to be. I can just jump in a car, get on a plane, and head down there when I can. That’s worked out really well for me.”
Lori McKenna Brings the Solo Songwriter Back to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs
Her kids inspire her music.
“My family influences every part of my career — from how I travel to how I tour to what I’m drawn to write about,” says McKenna. “They’ve been with me on this musical journey from the very beginning. ‘Humble and Kind’ is really the first song I’ve written specifically for them and to all five of my kids, but they have always made their way into lines here and there along the way.” And her family is aware that things they say might just make it into a song. “They know me well enough by now when it comes to how my writer brain works. Sometimes they might say something and follow it with, ‘Yeah, write that.’ My husband in particular is very good about not taking songs personally — he knows how the emotional content of a song has a mind of its own sometimes.”
Writing Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” humbled her.
“The fact that Tim took this song that I saw as a prayer or a little list of things I wanted my kids to know and saw it as something bigger than that was amazing to me,” she explains. “To have him sing it to so many people, I really feel like I wrote the song with him because he’s taken it to levels that I don’t have the ability to do, and honestly, I just didn’t see it that way. It’s been overwhelmingly wonderful to me, such a journey.”
McKenna has been writing songs since her teenage years.
“Two of my brothers are songwriters, and I remember presenting one of them to my brother, Richie. We grew up on James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carole King, and Neil Young, and he listened to it and said, ‘How in the world did you just write a country song?’” she recalls. “The early stuff is a little bit scary to look back on, but you have to go through that.” And as a songwriter, McKenna loves to dig into the “extraordinary lives” of ordinary people. “It’s just a matter of picking it apart, and shining the light on that story or that amazing thing that happened to us. I love songs or stories that give you all the little tiny details, but let you paint the rest of the picture yourself. I love music where we know the details, but we invent everything else in our heads. Sometimes, the listener might hear the song a little differently than I do. That’s the cool part about it all. I think that every human has a lot of great and not so great things that happen to them, and I love those everyday stories.”
The lyrics of her song “Old Men Young Women” are ones she hopes don’t come true anytime soon.
“That was Luke Laird’s title. I wrote that with him and Barry Dean one day in Nashville. Luke said that he had this title, and the hook was ‘Old men, young women only work in the beginning.’ I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s perfect,'” she recalls. “I think they wanted to write it with a woman and a woman singing it, because it came better from that perspective — as the woman who has been through it, and maybe has been through both sides of that coin as the young woman and the older woman. It’s fun to play live, and it’s such a different character for me. Normally, I write what I think I know or what I’ve lived through. This has not been my experience — unless my husband leaves me for a younger woman, then, I’ll let you know!”
Her Massachussetts accent made her the butt of jokes.
“When I started traveling for music, my accent became a bit of an issue because it was so thick. People would ask me all the time to say ‘Park the car in Harvard yard’ and it drove me crazy,” McKenna explains. “I started trying really hard to pronounce my R’s and somehow I only knew how to do that in a southern sort of way. Ha! It’s a joke with the family now when we watch old home movies — all of us had really thick South Shore accents and we’ve all learned to pronounce our words better. I think we can thank music for that!”