By Samantha Highfill
July 22, 2020 at 08:30 AM EDT
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The Write Stuff is an occasional series about songwriters.

Walking into the halls of her Massachusetts middle school, a young Lori McKenna was about to learn a very important lesson. "When I got to middle school, I realized, 'Oh, nobody else writes songs?'" McKenna tells EW with a laugh.

McKenna, the youngest of five siblings, grew up in a musical family. (Two of her brothers are also songwriters.) Thanks to a father who loved musicals, music surrounded McKenna from an early age. "It didn't really occur to me to not write songs," she says. In fact, she wrote her first song in elementary school. She estimates she was in the third or four grade when she presented a song about the rodeo to her family.

"There's a folk station in Boston called WUMB. At the time, I was listening to a lot of that so I was suddenly introduced to this local folk music," McKenna recalls. "And I delivered this song about a rodeo. I'd never been to a rodeo, probably never seen one on TV. I knew nothing about rodeos, I just knew there were horses and cowboys. The song was about a woman who lost her husband to the rodeo." She laughs. "[My siblings] used to tease me saying it was a past-life experience."

Subject matter aside, the song was, at least in one way, indicative of McKenna's future career. "It was a really folky song, but the language was country. It was like a country folk song, which is what I'm still doing," she says. Though it would take McKenna another 20-plus years before she realized songwriting was a potential career.

In 2004, after releasing her album Bittertown, McKenna caught the eye of Faith Hill. One trip to Nashville later, and suddenly she was writing songs for other artists. Now, McKenna has put out 10 albums — with her next, The Balladeer coming July 24 — and written Grammy-winnings songs for the likes of Tim McGraw, Little Big Town, and more. EW asked McKenna to take us through some of her most memorable hits.

Becky Fluke

"Girl Crush," by Little Big Town

I had that title in my phone. You'd see it on Instagram, like #girlcrush. I didn't know what it meant. I said it to [songwriters] Liz [Rose] and Hillary [Lindsey], and Hillary sang the first four lines of that song exactly as they are. And we just followed the song. [Little Big Town's] Karen [Fairchild] and Kimberly [Schlapman] literally came in that day and we played it for them and they were like, "That's ours, please don't play that for anybody else." That's a once-in-a-career story to me, that song just happening the way it did.

"Humble and Kind," by Tim McGraw

"Humble and Kind" I wrote at my house when all my kids were at school. I literally didn't get out of my pajamas. I took the kids to school, came back, and I sat in this chair in my dining room all day. I wanted to write down everything my husband and I would want the kids to know, which is actually really easy because there's a million things that your parents want to tell you. The hardest part was making sure each one of my five kids had a place in the song. My husband got home like eight hours later and I'm in the same spot in the same clothes with the same cup of coffee in front of me and he's like, "What are you doing?" [Laughs] I'm like, "I think I wrote a song."

And the way Tim sees that song is so different from the way I see it, and the fact that he saw so much universality that other people could identify with was a good lesson to me about songs. I always say I should give Tim some publishing on that because of where he brought it. But then, he doesn't need any money. [Laughs]

"Cry Pretty," by Carrie Underwood

It started with the title. It got thrown around the room and Carrie was willing to go there. For her to be that vulnerable and talk about not having your s— together all the time, I thought, was so brave. With someone in the public eye that much you don't know. She's really great to write with. She's a hell of a writer. And the makeup and the visual they put with it was so great, and gave everyone a glimpse of her being vulnerable. When you don't feel like you can lose your s— for a minute, you can and then you'll be okay again.

"Always Remember Us This Way," by Lady Gaga

We wrote that for [A Star Is Born], and I don't know if that line came from the script at the time, which was completely changing as we were writing, but I feel like it came from Gaga. I don't remember exactly how the words fell out. We didn't know the scene, and the script was evolving so much. But I sat on the floor of the studio. Natalie [Hemby] and Hillary [Lindsey] swapped off on the piano and then Gaga got on the piano, and the four of us sat there and wrote that song and cried. It was like a good girl session. Gaga was wonderful to work with. But the script was changing so much every day, I couldn't believe the song even made it in. We wrote the song "The Tree," which I put on my last record, for that record.

"When You're My Age," by Lori McKenna

That song is because of David Letterman. He was interviewing Howard Stern on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction and he said, "My son's 14 years old, what's the world going to be like when he's my age?" I crumbled a little thinking about my kids. I wrote "when you're my age" down, and that's where the song starts. I couldn't finish it, so I brought it to Liz and Hillary. When I played them the verse, Liz started singing the chorus and Hillary found our hook. It's a long song. I went into the studio and was like, "Don't tell me to take a verse out." [Laughs]

I was lucky that Liz and Hillary let me cut it. I think we knew we probably wouldn't find a big artist to cut it because it is so long. I discussed it with Tim [McGraw]. He was the first person that we brought it to, but it was too close to probably "Call Your Mama" and what he was doing at the time. For me, I needed it for this record and I wanted it to be the first release because it's the anchor. It's an excuse for it to be yet another very personal record.

A version of this article appears in the August issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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