Lori McKenna took to the stage last night to perform her hit song “Humble and Kind” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It was a great moment to see for the talented singer-songwriter, who has received so much deserved attention for penning the #1 hit by Tim McGraw. As much as I enjoy McGraw’s version, there’s just something special to hear Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year perform it. Of course The Bird & The Rifle was an excellent album altogether. Anyway I thought her performance was fantastic on the show and I highly encourage you to watch it below.
To say the women of country and Americana had a great year would be an understatement. They were absolutely fantastic the entire year, delivering a variety of fantastic albums. As a whole they outclassed and outperformed male artists. Of course I don’t want to make this a gender thing. At Country Perspective we praise all great music and artists, regardless of gender. The only reason I have separate male artist and female artist of the year awards is it allows me to point out two great artists instead of just one with a unified artist of the year award. Any time I can talk more about great music I take it.
Back to Female Artist of the Year though, it was quite difficult picking a winner. As I said, the ladies killed it this year so the competition was tough for this award. I knew no matter who I picked there would be readers left disappointed. It’s a nice problem to have that so many people care about these artists and speaks how great their music was in 2016. In the end there was one artist I kept coming back to and eventually realizing she was the most deserving. In 2016 she finally got the spotlight she’s deserved after years of being the songwriter behind the stars’ hits. I guarantee that people won’t forget her name now and they shouldn’t because she’s one of the best. So with great pleasure I award Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year to Lori McKenna.
What helped make 2016 such a big year for McKenna of course was the success of “Humble and Kind.” Tim McGraw chose to release it as the second single off of his 2015 album Damn Country Music. The song went #1, has been certified platinum and even got a Oprah approved music video. And one person, Lori McKenna wrote it. This comes after 2015 she helped co-write the hit Little Big Town song “Girl Crush.” But this was even bigger for McKenna. “Humble and Kind” was the first song to reach #1 written solely by one person since Taylor Swift’s “Ours” in 2012. The song went on to win the 2016 CMA Song of the Year, with her only being one of five solo women all time to win the award and the first ever to win it two years in a row. It even went on to win Favorite Country Song at the American Music Awards. Just this week it was nominated for Best Country Song at the 2017 Grammys.
With the song being called “Humble and Kind,” it of course came from a humble place as McKenna wrote it. She says it was written for her family, specifically her five kids, and the lessons she wanted them to know in life. This genuine caring and honesty shines through completely in the lyrics. Everything about the song just makes you feel good inside and is a good reminder for us all to live by. The verse that stands out to me the most though is verse two:
Don’t expect a free ride from no-one
Don’t hold a grudge or a chip, and here’s why
Bitterness keeps you from flying
Always stay humble and kind
Know the difference between sleeping with someone
And sleeping with someone you love
I love you ain’t no pick-up-line
So, always stay humble and kind
Particularly the part about love is what is most important. The last few years we’ve heard love, lust and hooking up all get muddled together on country radio. Countless songs seemingly equated these all together, so it’s refreshing to hear McKenna lay out plainly that there’s a difference and the love should never be used as a pick-up line. At the same time the song is essentially saying sleeping with someone if you don’t love them is okay too. You should just be true in your intentions and don’t mix love up with lust.
“Humble and Kind” isn’t the only new music we got from McKenna this year though. We also got a new album from her titled The Bird & The Rifle. This is where you gain an even greater appreciation for her talent. Featuring her own recording of her hit song, the album also contains some other sharply written phenomenal songs on life, love and small towns. There’s the pointed, but well-intended lesson of “Old Men Young Women” where McKenna warns a young woman dating an older man, her ex. She reminisces of old times and old plans on “We Were Cool.” “Giving Up on Your Hometown” sees her illustrating the painful realization many come to about their small hometowns and that you can’t keep things the same forever. Then you have aching love song “Always Wants You,” which is about a woman being unable to shake the love of someone she thought she was over. If you haven’t heard this album yet, you need to hear it.
While there are plenty of other artists with more flash and bigger names, you’re not going to find too many better than Lori McKenna. Just like the song, she’s always taken a humble and kind approach. It’s served her well throughout her career and in 2016 she finally gets the recognition she deserves. It was simply her year and that’s why she’s Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year.
Lori McKenna has been recording and releasing music for nearly 16 years, but with her songwriting success over the past year, now is as good a time as ever for her to release an album. McKenna co-wrote Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, a song which captured the attention of pretty much everyone. And most recently, Tim McGraw’s “Humble & Kind”, written solely by McKenna, topped the airplay charts and has gone onto be a career hit for McGraw. McKenna teamed up with producer Dave Cobb with The Bird & The Rifle, Lori McKenna delivers nine brand new songs as well as her own recording of “Humble & Kind.”
The Bird & The Rifle begins with the heartbreaking “Wreck You.” McKenna sings from the first person point of view of a wife struggling to find out why her marriage has been falling apart. She’s not exactly sure where things went wrong or what she needs to do to change and fix it, but she’s aware that something is definitely wrong. You can hear the pain in McKenna’s voice as she sings. This is followed by the excellent title track for the album. An acoustic driven story song, Lori McKenna sings of another troubled marriage. She compares the wife to a bird and the husband to a rifle, two things that don’t go together well. While the bird can sing beautiful songs that rifle loves, the bird has the urge to fly but seems to be held down by the rifle’s fear and anger. “Something about the bird her spreading those wings always seems to bring the rifle out in him.” It’s a tried and true story, but McKenna writes and delivers it with a new sense of purpose and heart.
Lori McKenna visits small town life with “Giving Up on Your Hometown.” A bit more upbeat song than the first two, but this song takes a solemn look returning to your hometown and not recognizing how it has changed. People have passed, old hot spots have been torn down, and the place simply doesn’t feel like home anymore. Even with a more slightly upbeat production, the song doesn’t drift any faster than a mid-tempo ballad. “Halfway Home” tells the story of a woman who’s stuck in relationships with men who are unreliable or around for only one night. The song encourages the woman to keep moving on because she’s halfway home, half of the way to finding the true love she deserves. “Halfway Home” is another excellent vocal delivery from Lori McKenna.
I like Tim McGraw’s recording of “Humble & Kind”, but Lori McKenna’s recording on The Bird & The Rifle is even better. Maybe it’s due to the fact that McKenna is the lone writer of the song, but she sings the lyrics with such a conviction that isn’t present in McGraw’s recording. “Humble & Kind” is a song with fantastic lyrics, and hearing Lori McKenna sing them is a gift for the listener. “We Were Cool” is another song of nostalgia. Lori McKenna reminisces about growing up and how she and her friends felt cool riding in the older brother’s cool car. With an album full of poignant heartbreaking songs (and following the excellent “Humble & Kind”), “We Were Cool” gets a little lost in the shuffle, but it’s still a fun song to listen to, and it doesn’t make it a bad song by any stretch of the imagination.
Another album standout is the brutally honest “Old Men Young Women.” For starters, this song has one of the best opening lyrics. “You can have him; I hope you have fun. I guess wife number three could be the one.” Lori McKenna, presumably singing from the perspective of wife number one, speaks to the young third wife, shining a light on the dark corners of the marriage. She’s the trophy and link to a past he’ll never experience again, and he has the material resources to provide for her. But at the end of the day, neither one is fulfilled emotionally and it’s only a matter of time before the relationship meets its inevitable end.
“All These Things” is an upbeat love song, perhaps the most upbeat song of the album. McKenna lists off several different things and situations that illustrate the strength to their devotion to one another. “Always Want You” is a song about trying to get over a break up. Just like water runs through the creek bed or church bells ring on Sunday, McKenna believes she’ll always want the one she can’t have. “If Whiskey Were a Woman” is another heartbreaking song about a marriage on the rocks. Again, Lori McKenna is singing from the perspective of a woman who has let her marriage fall apart. She knows she can’t love and comfort her husband like she should, and compares herself to the whiskey he clings to and drinks, and how she would be if she were the whiskey.
In a word, The Bird & The Rifle is excellent. Lori McKenna writes and sings great stories with a stunning conviction and honesty. These truly are McKenna’s stories to tell, and she sells you on that truth. Even with the slower and mid-tempo production, Dave Cobb helps keep the focus of the album on McKenna’s voice and words, which is where the strength of the album lies. Whether it’s a single word choice in the title track or the biting delivery in “Old Men Young Women”, Lori McKenna let’s focal point of the album shine. The Bird & The Rifle is a must listen and a must buy album. Lori McKenna delivers a stunning country, folk album.