Our Swag Spotlight this week is not a rising artist but an established, veteran songwriter responsible for some of the most prolific and important songs in our generation of country music. Lori McKenna was born and raised in Massachusets and still resides there today with her husband whom she married when she was 19 years old. Growing up the youngest of six children, McKenna’s family were all musical whether they sang, played in a band or wrote songs, she was immersed in the musical culture from a very young age. She jokes as she tells us that in her house it was “Jesus and James Taylor”. Other musical influences included Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, and Carole King to name a few, always leaning heavily into the singer-songwriter genre.
“I have the strangest voice in my family, all of my siblings can sing really pretty, what happened to me?” she laughs. “I learned over the years that even though it’s different, least I have a distinctive voice.” When she was 13 her older brother who loved to write songs taught her that once she learned three chords, she could write music and so she did. “I always wrote songs as a means of therapy, some people have a journal, instead I would write a song.”
She married Gene, whom she met in the third grade and they had three children very quickly, her eldest is now 20. She explains that it wasn’t until her third child was born that she ever even thought about letting the world hear her music. She went to open mic nights and made a record, Bittertown, which is celebrating it’s 15th anniversary this year. “I just kept following it, I always followed my music, it was always luckily a step ahead of me,” she tells us. “I battled with confidence issues, I didn’t know I was worthy of doing it outside of my house, for the most part, I’ve been so lucky that it sort of pulled me. I tell my kids to stick their neck out, even if it sounds stupid, they should try it anyway.”
The turning point in her career was Bittertown when songs from that album were pitched around Nashville, and Faith Hill decided to cut four of them. Although she didn’t grow up listening to country music, she completely understood why her lyrics identified with that audience and landed her a publishing deal in Nashville. She credits Music City with giving her some of her very best friends, the people that she co-writes all of her music with.
Now a mother of five children, McKenna made the poignant decision to keep her family together and not uproot everyone to move to Nashville. “I realized a few years back, the benefit for me and not living in Nashville is, I’m not an everyday writer, I have tons of friends that write every day, my brain just doesn’t work that way,” she laughs. “The benefit for me is, I’ve never for one second had any sort of bitterness towards the town of Nashville or the music that is created there. Every time I show up, I get off the plane and I am so excited to be there and to get in a writing room and it’s really like I get to have the best of both worlds”.
In the fifteen years since her life changed forever, McKenna has won two Grammy awards and has made history. In 2016, she became the first woman ever to win the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year two years in a row. Those two songs were “Girl Crush” which was written with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose and recorded by Little Big Town and “Humble and Kind” which McKenna wrote alone in her pajamas in her home in Massachusets which was later recorded by Tim McGraw. The former was written one morning in Nashville, watch the songwriters tell the story below in Opry’s series “The Write Stuff”.
McKenna says later that day they had a co-write with Kimberly and Karen from Little Big Town and when they told them about their “weird” new song, they absolutely loved it. “The five of us were just sitting there and I looked around at the room and I was teasing and I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m the only one here without a Grammy’ and Karen said, ‘Lori McKenna, we’re going to get you a Grammy’. Sure enough, at the 2016 Grammy awards, the song won for Best Country Duo/Group Performance as well as Song of the Year, winning McKenna her first Grammy award. “To have that experience with them [Hilary and Lindsey] was such a Godsend, they had done it before, they knew the process and I was experiencing this really surreal thing with my two best friends,” she explains.
The latter, “Humble and Kind” had quite a different start. McKenna tells us how she dropped her kids off at school one morning, came back to an empty house and sat around in her pajamas, essentially making a list of all of the things she and her husband would want their kids to know and what they tell them over and over again as well as those smaller things that you don’t verbalize. She sang it into her iPhone and emailed it to Tim McGraw, who immediately knew he wanted to record it. “When he was telling me about all of these ideas he had for it, once he had recorded it like the music video, I couldn’t believe it,” she admits. “I was like what is he doing with this song, it’s not some big moment, it’s just a tiny little prayer for five little kids, then when I saw what he created from it, in a million ways that song would not be what it is if it wasn’t for Tim, for what he did, the vision he had for it was so much bigger than I ever would have imagined. “
The song also went on to win a Grammy for Best Country Song as well as McKenna’s second year in a row winning Song of the Year at the CMA Awards. For country fans who love McGraw’s version, be sure to listen to McKenna’s version below, which really emulates the simple little prayer and poem she initially thought of when writing it.
In celebration of Bittertown’s 15th anniversary, McKenna just wrapped up her Return to Bittertown Tour and released two of the standouts from the project, “Stealing Kisses” and “Bible Songs”. We caught her stop at Subculture late last month and we were mesmerized by the songstress and her legendary delivery of her music.
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