Music is usually a reliable escape from reality, but between global tragedies and an acrimonious presidential election and deaths of iconic figures, it was extraordinarily difficult to escape the fever dream that was 2016.

Still, there was one song, quieter than almost anything else, that became a huge hit this year – and it was one we sorely needed.

Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” written by top Nashville songwriter Lori McKenna, stands out from the ballads you usually hear on country radio, which often center on relationships. Yet “Humble and Kind” struck a deep chord when it was released in January, as it hit No. 1 on the charts and went on to sell more than a million copies. Nominated for best country song at the upcoming Grammy Awards, it also won song of the year honors at the Country Music Association Awards and from the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The song is exactly what it sounds like: A simple, thoughtful, acoustic-driven tune that gently suggests ways to make the world a little nicer. “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,” the chorus advises, before zooming out to the bigger picture. “When those dreams you’re dreaming come to you/When the work you put in is realized/Let yourself feel the pride, but always stay humble and kind.”

The verses dig deeper: “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.” Then, “Know the difference between sleeping with someone, and sleeping with someone you love/‘I love you’ ain’t no pick-up line.” Other lines urge listeners to visit grandpa, go to church, and open the windows on a hot summer day instead of cranking up the air conditioner.

McKenna admits the idea is fairly basic, and that’s exactly what she envisioned. She wrote it in May 2014 at her house in suburban Massachusetts, sitting at the dining room table with her morning coffee after taking her kids to school. With her five children on her mind (ages 12 to 27), she thought about life lessons she wanted to pass on. She scribbled down a list; strummed a melody on her guitar; worked out the rhyming and phrasing; and by the end of the day, she had a song.

“Music in general… wakes us up from things we didn’t know we were feeling, or shuts down things we don’t want to feel anymore,” McKenna said in a phone interview. “I just hope in every song that I write, there’s a line that makes someone stop for a second and think.”

In the madness of this year’s news cycle, the straightforward, positive lyrics were a welcome respite. They connected with many, including McGraw, the country superstar who has been friends with McKenna for years. (McKenna’s career took off around 2005 when Faith Hill, McGraw’s wife, recorded several of her songs.) McKenna sent McGraw an audio file of her singing the track; when she ran into him a few weeks later, he assured her, “Oh yeah, we’re recording that song.”

“Humble and Kind” not only wound up as a cut on McGraw’s 14th studio album, “Damn Country Music,” but the label released it as the second single. The tune was bolstered further when Oprah Winfrey let McGraw use footage from her inspirational “Belief” series for the song’s award-winning music video, which featured scenes of different cultures around the world to capture the “universality” of the message.

December 22, 2016

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