“Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you/ When you get where you’re going, don’t forget turn back around/ And help the next one in line/ Always stay humble and kind.”
Before it was a Grammy-winning country song cherished by millions of listeners, “Humble and Kind” was written for five very specific people: Lori McKenna’s children.
After dropping McKenna’s youngest kids off at school, the songwriter sat at her dining room table and wrote out the principles she wanted all of them - from ages 10 to 25 - to live by.
In the hands of Tim McGraw, “Humble and Kind” became a reminder for millions more. McKenna told the story behind the song to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Bart Herbison: I’m going to be 100% honest with you. Somebody told me about the song before I heard you do it - and I heard you do it before I heard McGraw’s (version). When I heard the title, I’m like, “Man, really? ‘Humble and Kind’ on country music (radio). What is this?” Because it was very narrow, how that song could be written with the integrity that it held, and also be commercial. I think it had to get with the right artist. What is the story behind “Humble and Kind?”
Lori McKenna: You are 100% right. It had to get with the right artist, and I’ve talked to Tim a couple of times about this.
That song is a selfish little poem/lullaby that a mother of five wrote for her kids one day. At that point, my oldest is 25 and my youngest is 10, when I wrote it five or six years ago. I dropped off the kids at school, and I sat at my dining room table with my coffee and started thinking about all the things that Gene and I wanted to make sure we told the kids.
There’s so much information there. A parent can go on and on and on forever about what they want their kids to know. I know there was a lot of information going in. I did worry about getting preachy and I stopped myself really quickly and remembered I wasn’t writing this for anyone else. I was writing this for myself and for my kids. I sort of thought of it that way. If someone gives me trouble, oh well. I literally kept them in my focus.
I sent it to Tim and he had a melodic change in the chorus that he did that took me a long time to figure out what the subtle change is. It was just enough to make it commercial. He brought it to a place I still can’t believe.
BH: How close was the song to that point, lyrically?
LM: Lyrically, the song is exactly the same.
BH: A poem doesn’t always translate into a song.
LM: I wrote it with a melody. When I think of it, it’s a three-chord progression that hardly changes and everything has to rhyme with the word “kind.” It’s an easy rhyme. It’s a very simple song. I did luck out with the chorus. At that point, I had a 10-year-old, so saying, “Hold the door” and “Say ‘Thank you’” - I know that sounds so elementary, but there’s so much of that in parenting.
The other thing that I lucked out on that song is that I have five kids that span 15 years. At that point, I needed to make sure every kid had something that spoke to them. If I was a mother of two small children and tried to write that song, it would have been a very different song.
I think there was a lot of luck that was granted me that day. Mostly, it’s Tim. He really saw something in it, and I think he’s done this with other songs in his career because he’s really good at finding hit songs and he’s good at bringing something somebody else might pass on by. He can see something in it. He can see the diamond in the rough and he did with this song.
I think, because our kids are at similar ages and because I’ve seen them with their kids a bunch and I know how they parent, that I knew he and Faith kind of think the same way as Gene and I in that regard. So I sent it to him and he just went with it. There are so many pieces of blessings in that story. I can’t even pick them all out.
BH: What are some of the stories you hear from people (about this song)? It’s a very specific song, yet personal to every listener. They make it their own. That’s very uncommon and genius.
LM: That’s what I love about songs, though. I love songs that tell you what the room looks like but don’t exactly tell you what the guy in the room looks like but you can feel it. … As far as stories, on the weekends, I would get a text saying someone was at a wedding and the groom is dancing with his mom to this song! I would always hope it would be Tim’s version and not mine!
BH: I love your version!
LM: Thank you! That was Tim, you know. When you have a song that could sort of work in both ways, where it can be at a funeral or a wedding, that’s why we love country music.
BH: So finally, it’s about the kids. What do the kids think about it?
LM: This one was special in the beginning, even before they heard Tim. I played the Opry with my guitar player, Mark. All my kids were there except for my oldest, Brian. … I sang that song. You get two or three to play and I sang that song. The kids all knew it was their song. ... When Tim plays it, it’s off the charts for us. I have this great picture that my friend Becky took of us all at the Boston Garden the year that “Soul to Soul” was here and Tim played the song and we’re all just holding each other. The McGraws have been so good to me. The kids know it’s their song.
This article originally appeared on Taft Midway Driller: Behind the Song column: Tim McGraw’s ‘Humble and Kind’