In April 2015, veteran singer-songwriter Lori McKenna signed with a new management company. They asked her to do something she hadn’t done before: put her goals on paper.
At the top of the list? “I wrote down ‘I want to win a Grammy,’” she says.
“Not even a year goes by and I won a Grammy,” she adds, amazement still in her voice. She claimed the trophy for country song for co-writing Little Big Town’s juggernaut single, “Girl Crush,” with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose. The hit also netted her a Country Music Assn. award for song of the year.
McKenna is again nominated for a CMA award next month for writing Tim McGraw’s recent No. 1 “Humble and Kind.” Don’t be surprised if she scores another Grammy nod too.
“I never would have had the nerve to have said that before,” she says of her Grammy dreams between bites of a soft pretzel recently at Nashville’s Flying Saucer Draught Emporium. Her schedule on this September afternoon includes multiple appearances here at the annual AmericanaFest, as well as some writing sessions that may or may not produce one of Nashville’s next big hits.
For now, McKenna is focused on her July release, “The Bird & the Rifle,” a tour for which brings her to Hotel Café for a sold-out show Friday night.
The work is McKenna doing what she’s done best since launching her recording career in 2000, be it the devastating title track, which examines a waning relationship at cross purposes, or the morning-after drive-of-shame ruminations of “Halfway Home.” Then, of course, there’s the poignantly instructive “Humble and Kind.”
Produced by the in-demand Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), the album is the latest in McKenna’s string of exquisitely crafted meditations on life, loss, and love — be it romantic, familial or the kind you have for your hometown. McKenna lives half a mile from her childhood home in suburban Massachusetts, where she’s been raising the five kids for whom she wrote “Humble and Kind” as a kind of lullaby, guidebook and tribute.
“They’ve never said this but, I think they’re a little proud of it,” says McKenna of the song that encourages her kids (and everyone else) to be their best. (“Hold the door, say ‘please,’ say ‘thank you,’ Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie/ I know you got mountains to climb, but always stay humble and kind.”)
“[My son] David was walking down the hall at school and some girl was like ‘David! Always stay humble and kind,’” says McKenna with a laugh that lands somewhere between mortification and giddiness. “I was waiting for him to be like ‘Can you stop it. Mom? You’re killing my life.’ But he thought it was funny.”
McGraw fell in love with the song and says he feels lucky to have recorded it. His goal was simple: “to just not ruin the song.”
“I love that whole album,” says the country star of “The Bird & the Rifle.” McGraw and McKenna are longtime friends. He co-produced her 2007 album, “Unglamorous,” following a tour in which she opened for him and wife Faith Hill.
“When you hear her singing and her delivery, it’s just gut-wrenching, the way she turns a phrase. You have a visceral, emotional reaction when you hear her sing and very few artists, songwriters, or entertainers can actually physically do that.”
Cobb waxes equally rhapsodic. When asked if he’d be interested in working with her, Cobb recalls saying, “‘Oh my God, are you serious?’ Obviously, she’s an incredible songwriter, but I was a big fan of her voice. She sells her own songs the best.”
McKenna generously says McGraw and Hill are “the reason I have a job.”
Of Cobb she says, with a laugh, “He just has this way of controlling the artist that’s not manipulating but it’s pulling out the best in you without you realizing that he’s trying to fix something or that he’s trying to inspire you to get through it without overthinking or doing a … job.”
But before Nashville took notice, the 47-year-old McKenna had long been an acclaimed singer-songwriter. Thanks to her profile-raising recent hits-for-hire, some of which she performs in her sets, she is gaining new fans.
“Since ‘Girl Crush’ you can tell that the audience has grown in that direction more,” she says. “But I think the [audiences] lend themselves to each other. You’re not going to be attracted to ‘Humble and Kind’ unless you like the other stuff I do. But it is a different audience. It’s great.”
Few would classify what McKenna does in her own career as country music, but she’s not worried about labels, content to perform her own songs or watch them spread their wings through others.
“It’s funny, I remember years ago a publisher telling me it’s not about one song, it’s about your catalog. But on the surface it does sometime seem like it’s about one song,” says McKenna. “Last year it was ‘Girl Crush’ and this year it’s ‘Humble and Kind.’ But that’s why for me I think the [performing] artist side is really good because it sort of forces it to still to be about a journey of songs, not just those two.”
Whether you call them folk, country or Americana, the key, says Cobb, is that “they’re Lori McKenna songs.”
And she’s ready to start writing her goals for 2017.
“Not to say anything bad about any manager before,” she says, “but this was just their process and it really worked!”