Lori McKenna is a double threat: She's as talented a singer as she is a songwriter -- and that's dang talented.
McKenna's penned huge hits for Little Big Town, Tim McGraw, Hunter Hayes and more, but she's also cultivated a formidable solo career, with 11 studio albums to her name. She's won Grammy Awards for the songs she's given away, but she's also been nominated for her own recording work as well.
In order to honor McKenna the artist and McKenna the songwriter, The Boot's list of the Top 10 Songs By Lori McKenna includes a sampling of both songs of her sung by other artists and songs she's recorded herself. Scroll through the list below for our picks.
"We Were Cool"From 'The Bird and the Rifle' (2016)
The way that McKenna mutters, “We were cool,” at the close of the chorus of this song is just so deeply (and fittingly) … cool. McKenna is at her best when she’s telling stories about small-town lovers and screw-ups, and 2016’s The Bird and the Rifle is populated with songs that do just that. Listening to “We Were Cool,” it’s immediately clear why the record was nominated for Best Country Album at the Grammy Awards (and why it ended up on nearly every year-end “Best Of” list in 2016): We Were Cool” is a quiet gem of a song, full of heart and impossibly cool.
No one who saw Underwood debut “Cry Pretty” at the 2018 ACM Awards is likely to forget that powerful, emotional performance. But what you might not know is that one of the people behind the song is McKenna, who co-wrote the track with Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Underwood. “Cry Pretty” is an anthem for not always having to hold it together: “You can pretty much fake your way through anything / But you can’t cry pretty.” The gold-certified song peaked at No. 5 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
One of the great thing about McKenna is that, because she’s such an accomplished songwriter, we often get to hear multiple recordings of the same song. Such is the case with the rootsy “My Love Follows You Where You Go”: McKenna recorded a version of the song for her 2013 album Massachusetts, but before that, Krauss and Union Station recorded their own (slightly more bluegrass) version for 2011’s Paper Airplane. No matter which version you prefer, both are rife with poetic imagery and the sharp details McKenna is so good at writing.
Little Big Town, frequent McKenna collaborators, recorded “Happy People” for their 2017 album The Breaker, and released it as both a promotional track for and a single from the album. But personally, we prefer McKenna’s performance; It may have received fewer spins that LBT’s version, but McKenna’s recording of "Happy People," for 2018’s The Tree, is a lighthearted, upbeat roots song that’s rich in its simplicity and easy chorus harmonies. “Here's to whatever puts a smile on your face,” she sings. “Whatever makes you happy people.”
“I Want Crazy” is a celebration of a love that’s big: “But I don’t want ‘good’, and I don’t want ‘good enough’ / I want ‘can’t sleep, can’t breathe without you’ love,” Hayes declares in the chorus. Of course, those lyrics were penned by none other than McKenna and her co-writers, Hayes and Troy Verges. The no-holds-barred love song was a gigantic hit, earning a Grammy Awards nomination and becoming double-platinum certified. As a song about gigantic love, it earned one other gigantic nomination: World’s Best Song from the World Music Awards. That nomination pales in comparison to another honor, though: A version of "I Want Crazy" was also recorded and performed by the Chuck E. Cheese band. Now that’s crazy.
McKenna and Little Big Town are ideal collaborators (in fact, you’ll see them again later on this list). Maybe it’s because, when they work together, they make magic. In this case, it’s the song “When Someone Stops Loving You,” written by McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Chase McGill and recorded by LBT for 2017’s The Breaker. The song is about the motions you’re forced to go through, even in the face of heartbreak: “Still gotta walk into a crowded room with the radio on / Crack a smile and crack a beer like it don’t bother you / Like it ain’t your song that’s on.” For everyone who’s ever felt as though their breakup was so bad that it should have “made the evening news,” this is the song for you.
"Halfway Home"From 'The Bird and the Rifle' (2016)
McKenna sounds as though she’s channeling David Gray in “Halfway Home,” and we mean that as a compliment. Her aching vocals are on full display on this track from 2016’s acclaimed The Bird and the Rifle. “Deep down, you know that you’re worth more than this / Or the cost of that dinner last night / He’d be driving you home / If he was worth half the s--t / And his daddy had raised him up right.” With “Halfway Home,” McKenna proves two things: One, she’s really good at writing tearjerkers. And two, she sometimes saves some of her best songs for herself.
Little Big Town’s sexy smash hit “Girl Crush” was written by none other than McKenna and co-writers Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose. The second single from LBT’s Pain Killer features a narrator obsessing over the woman who stole her man and was an explosive hit, winning Song and Single of the Year at the 2015 CMA Awards and Best Country Duo / Group Performance and Best Country Song at the Grammy Awards. The No. 1 hit has also gone platinum an astounding three times.
"Wreck You"From 'The Bird and the Rifle' (2016)
McKenna warns us right in the title: This song is going to wreck you. "Wreck You" mourns a love that was, and it's rich in those details that McKenna is so good at including: “Well, I get dressed in the dark each day / You used to think that was so sweet / By 6AM, I’m in the car driving / I keep my change in the car ashtray / I haven’t smoked in years and years / But lately, I’ve been craving.” McKenna tells Rolling Stone that she’d actually had the song written for seven or eight years, but took a long time to record it herself: “The song just won’t die,” she explains. And we're glad it didn’t: "Wreck You" earned Grammy Awards nominations for Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song.
McKenna recorded her song “Humble and Kind” for The Bird and the Rifle, but it was McGraw’s version of the song that exploded. “Humble and Kind” earned the CMA for Song of the Year, went platinum, topped the charts in both the U.S. and Canada, was turned into a book and won the Grammy Awards' Best Country Song trophy. Perhaps all of its success comes from its timeless -- and necessary -- message: “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 be humble and kind.”