It began as one of Lori McKenna‘s “spaghetti days” — the kind of day when the mom of five drops her kids off at school, picks up one of the guitars in her Stoughton, Massachusetts, house, sits at her dining table with a cup of coffee and begins to write a tune. “If I start writing, I don’t get anything else done, ” McKenna explains. “And I can cook spaghetti in like 10 minutes!”
On this spaghetti day, McKenna was thinking about her kids, aged 12 to 27, and all the little things she hoped they’d learn in life. “Sometimes we get so busy, we don’t tell them the simplest things,” she tells PEOPLE. “We tell them all these huge things that we think they need to know but sometimes we miss the most basic things, like ‘Stand there for an extra two seconds and hold a door for someone who isn’t right behind you.’ If you get in the habit of doing those things, everything is better.”
With lines like, “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 result became a No. 1 for McKenna’s friend, Tim McGraw. And at Wednesday’s CMA Awards, “Humble & Kind” took home song of the year.
For the songwriter, the CMAs will be a bit of deja-vu: last year she took home song of the year honors for Little Big Town‘s “Girl Crush” (along with co-writers Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey). “It’s unreal to be honest,” says McKenna, who is bringing all five children, plus her husband, to the show.
The song, which McKenna recorded herself as part of her own album, The Bird & The Rifle, released this summer, has made an impression on her kids.”I always tease that they never listen to me, so I had to write it down in a song,” McKenna says. “They still didn’t listen until Tim sang it! But they do know it’s their song and I think they’re proud of it.”
McGraw’s video, which won CMT Video of the Year, takes the song’s theme and blends it with footage from around the world, borrowed from Oprah Winfrey‘s documentary, Belief. But McKenna’s version is spare and intimate, just the songwriter and a guitar on a front porch.
“When Tim sings it, it seems like a bigger message, and when I saw the video it blew me away,” says McKenna, who admits she sometimes has a hard time getting through the song without crying. “When I sing it, no matter how hard I try, even if I tried to make it sound bigger, I see everything through my kitchen window. I see the song in such a simple way, and it’s acutely pointed at those five kids.”