It's a good thing that the songwriting collective known as the Love Junkies — composed of Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey — is a democracy. Otherwise, Little Big Town might not be releasing their much buzzed-about current single, "Girl Crush."
Periodically, McKenna — a mother of five from Stoughton, Massachusetts, who has had hits with several artists including Hunter Hayes and Faith Hill — flies down to Nashville where she, Lindsey and Rose hole up at Rose's house with food, wine and guitars. Since their inception, the Love Junkies — who have all had success independently — have written several songs together, including others cut by Little Big Town including "Sober" from 2012's Tornado and "Tumble and Fall" and "Save Your Sin" from the quartet's current release, Pain Killer.
One morning earlier this year, McKenna tested out the "Girl Crush" title on Rose. "She gave me this look like she just hated it," recalls McKenna, who kept arguing for the idea. "She said, 'Lori, shut it down. We're not writing a song called Girl Crush.' She didn't even explain, she just hated it." So like a teenager going from one parent to another to borrow the car keys, McKenna decided to try the idea on Lindsey.
"Liz starts with her argument with the dirty look and, I'm not kidding, Hillary played the first chord and sang the first verse as it is. And immediately after she sang it, Liz said, 'Oh my god, I love this idea! I get it now, I love it!'" recalls McKenna with a laugh. "So we wrote it pretty quickly. And because Liz hated it so much at first, we thought nobody was going to like the song but us, so we weren't careful. It's good for your songwriting soul to write a song that's just for you and isn't commercial."
But when LBT's Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman came over that afternoon — literally the fifth and sixth people to hear the song after Rose's publisher — they immediately fell in love. "Karen just flipped out and said, 'You have to save that for us.' And we were like, 'Save it for you? Who else is going to record it?' Sometimes you just don't know, it had just come out of the oven."
"I knew as soon as I heard the hook of the first chorus that we had to have this song," says Fairchild. "I'd never heard a jealousy song written like this. It's definitely one of the best songs I've ever heard and to get to sing it every night is a gift."
LBT fans who picked up Pain Killer had a similar reaction to the ballad, thanks to the unconventionally spare arrangement and Fairchild's sultry reading of the lyrics, in which the narrator of the song yearns to have another woman's looks, sounds, smells and even the taste of her lips. But it isn't long before listeners realize the character covets these things because the man she pines for is sharing a bed with this other woman.
Chatter began on social media and before long, Kelly Clarkson was covering the song live.
"It could be a bit of a game changer on country radio right now," says Fairchild, noting her record company was behind the track as a single from the moment they heard her perform the song for them in the recording studio. "There are not many women on the radio and not many ballads with that kind of lyrical content. I'm excited. Already, radio's support has been huge out of the gate."
"It's so funny because it took on a life of its own when the record came out, and how could you possibly expect something like that?" says McKenna, who, when not writing in Nashville, enjoys her own career as a singer-songwriter, and is currently touring for her superb 2014 release, Numbered Doors.
McKenna, who first burst onto the Nashville songwriting scene with three songs on Faith Hill's 2005 Fireflies album, tells us the stories behind some of the many hits she's charted in the last decade.
RaeLynn, "God Made Girls"
McKenna co-wrote this ode to femininity with Liz Rose, Nicolle Galyon and RaeLynn herself. "She is just a ray of sunshine, always positive and so authentically herself at such a young age. It's impressive to see that," says McKenna of the former The Voice contestant.
Galyon and Raelynn lobbed out the title, McKenna started playing and the song took shape. "We had a ball writing it," says McKenna, who was surprised to hear the song being labeled sexist in some quarters.
"We were careful to champion the things that we loved about that girl [in the song] and it being so RaeLynn," says McKenna, who notes the song isn't about being subservient to or looking good for men. "To me, it's way more powerful than that. If we're making him do anything, we're making him be a better person," she says with a laugh. "And we tried to say that in a fun way."
"Yesterday, I picked up seven 13-year-old girls to come over here for lunch with my daughter, and right when they got in my car 'God Made Girls' came on the radio. I videotaped them all screaming it in my car and sent it to Raelynn. To those girls, that song is empowering."
Hunter Hayes, "I Want Crazy'
"Talk about an old soul in a young body," says McKenna of Hayes, with whom she and Troy Verges co-wrote the tune about finding a love that makes you take leave of your senses. "He is so mature and has it figured out much more than most of us. In a way, I was the youngest one in that room," she says with a laugh.
"They're both great songwriters, but first and foremost they're amazing guitar players and I think that's where they connected that day, so that song started with that riff," she says. "And then Hunter was talking about falling in love and that feeling of losing your mind, and I just sat back and watched. I felt like the luckiest person in Nashville that day because I was in that room. I did a lot of typing and cheerleading and... [Laughs] I think I contributed in the front porch direction."
Little Big Town, "Your Side of the Bed'
"It was the first song we wrote together," says McKenna of the painfully moving look at the gulfs that can open up between partners in a long-term relationship.
"Karen played the melody for all of us and I thought, 'Thank God they came in with a ballad,'" she says of her propensity for slow songs. McKenna shared that she had been toying with a title that might work with that feel, and the members of LBT asked what the song wanted to say. McKenna replied, "I think it would literally list the things that are on the side of the bed and in an obscure way talk about the relationship, and they were on board right away."