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‘Humble and Kind’: How Lori McKenna Wrote Tim McGraw’s Hit Single

McKenna won Songwriter of the Year at this year's ACM Awards.

By Brian Ives

One of the biggest country hits of the past few years is Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” and it’s one that will likely transcend this era and be a favorite for decades to come. The woman who wrote it for him — Lori McKenna — is one of country music’s best writers, having written or co-written songs for Faith Hill, Keith Urban and Little Big Town over the years. But even though she’s always in demand in Nashville, she actually calls Boston home. And it was at home that she wrote “Humble and Kind.”

“That was like a ‘home alone’ day; I brought my kids to school. And I have this weird habit: I realize it’s strange, I just sit in my dining room and I stare out the window. I’ll just stare out the window: ‘Oh, John’s home.’ ‘Oh, Eddie’s leaving.’ I don’t know why I do that; it’s so creepy that I watch my neighbors! And I’ll just pick up the guitar and see what’s happening.”

“We tend to leave guitars around the house, because I have this weird thing of, if I feel like writing a song and it’s not ‘in’ one guitar, it may be ‘in’ the one beside it. Which I know sounds weird, but it’s kind of true sometimes.”

“My husband and I have five kids, and I was thinking about the kids, and thinking about things that I wanted to make sure that we told them. It’s a very simple song, it’s a three chord progression, everything has to rhyme with the word ‘kind,’ which is easy to rhyme with, and it’s really just a list. The hardest part of it was keeping things in there that worked, but not making it a 7 1/2 minute song. Any parent, when talking about things they need to tell their kids, could probably have a long list of things. I just sat there until dinner time, until I picked the kids up at school.”

Related: Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman Says ‘We Went to the Beach’ ‘Brings Tears to My Eyes’

“I think [by then] I probably had most of it. And then when I came back I just sort of edited it down. I wanted to make sure there was a line in there that reminded me of each of the kids.”

Working on the song nearly cut into family time: “My husband was like, ‘Are we eating dinner tonight?’… We call those ‘spaghetti days,’ because spaghetti is the only thing I can cook in ten minutes.”

The song is the last track on McGraw’s 2015 album Damn Country Music, but McKenna recorded her own version for her latest LP, last year’s The Bird and the Rifle. The album also features “Always Want You,” which she co-wrote with her fellow “Love Junkies,” the team responsible for writing Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.” They get together about once a month to co-write together.

“The Love Junkies is myself, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey. We spend, usually, three days together, we all sleep at Liz’s house, we write from the minute we wake up in the morning until somebody falls asleep. We get ‘girl time,’ and time to talk about our husbands, and our kids, and time to complain about things, and we love each other, we can say anything to each other. And when do you get to have pajama parties at age forty-eight and have that kind of time with your girlfriends on a regular basis?”

“With ‘Always Want You’… I always think of my mother, because she died when I was little, so I just think of somebody you just want in your life, that isn’t there anymore, somebody that you just miss so much.”

She says that her favorite songs are the ones that could apply to anyone’s situation, not just a specific one. “The Love Junkies did some shows… Hillary was playing this song that she wrote called ‘Home,’ it’s about, ‘I miss you, it’s not the same without you,’ but then she tells the story about the song, and it’s about missing her cat that she had for seventeen years. Those songs, I like [them], because anyone can listen to that song and apply their grief or their worry to it and then it gives them to feel something very personal through a song that they didn’t write.”

UPDATE: McKenna won Songwriter of the Year at the ACM Awards, the first woman ever to do so.

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