Song Snapshots #38: We’re Not Gonna Bow

Kenna Turner West started writing songs as a child. “But they were horrible,” she recalls. “‘Sam Lives In a Garbage Can’ is the first song I ever remember writing, and then there was the big hit, ‘He’s Contagious, and He Might Rub Off On You.’”

When she was in her twenties, she wrote songs as part of her devotional time. “I wouldn’t really call them songs,” she recalls, “though they rhymed and had a melody. They were really just thoughts and feelings from my heart to the Lord, so they had value, but they weren’t commercial songs by any means.”

During those years of her life, she was pursuing a different aspect of the music business, singing on the road full-time. Her father is Ken Turner who sang bass for the Palmetto State Quartet, the Dixie Echoes, and the Blackwood Brothers. In her teens, West also sang with her father and sister as a trio during the summers on tour with the Blackwoods.

West came to Christ in 1983 at eighteen. “About a month later,” she remembers, “I flew out to California to spend some time with my dad who was on tour.” Turner was still a member of the Blackwood Brothers. Cecil Blackwood told her to bring a track and she could do that song each night of the West Coast tour. But things quickly grew; and the one song became three songs with the group at the end of the concert, and then the second half of the program. By the end of the trip, she had been added as a full-time member of the Blackwood Brothers and was with the group for two years before launching a solo ministry that has reached across the country and around the world.

She married Kerry West, son of country music legend Dottie West, in 1992; their son was born two years later. While he was a baby, napping, she began to spend more time writing. “They weren’t songs that you’d want to hear, but it was a starting place for me,” she remembers.

In the mid-90s, she continued to grow as a songwriter. “When I began to make it more personal, add a Scriptural parallel, and offer application for the listener, it began to come together.”

One night at a Bible Study, a friend at her church encouraged her to start singing her own songs. “I had a career in music but I was singing other people’s songs!” West remembers. “But I knew that was the Lord; I began to realize that if what I had written spoke to my heart, then maybe they would speak to someone else’s.”

Her husband is an audio engineer for country singer Ronnie Milsap. They went into a friend’s studio with her church band and recorded ten songs; these became her first CD of original material.

She gave a copy of the CD to a friend from her church who worked at Spring Hill. One day, that friend was playing the CD in her office when Phil Johnson, the Spring Hill A& R Director, walked in, heard the songs, and contacted her.

“I had given her the CD because she was one of my best friends,” West recalls, “but truly, I didn’t know if the songs were even good enough for me to go and sing, much less pitch to other artists. There would be a value in me singing them because they came from my heart, but the thought of another artist wanting to say those same things wasn’t on my radar at all.”

Johnson asked West if she would write for Spring Hill. She agreed. That first CD had a song Karen Peck & New River recorded, “A Taste of Grace.”

The day Johnson contacted West, her husband had just finished adding a home studio. They used that studio to record her first Spring Hill demos. One of these songs was “We’re Not Gonna Bow,” a song Jeff & Sheri Easter would record.

“It was my first single,” West said, “and it went to #1, and it was nominated for a Dove Award. I didn’t even know I could do write! No one was more surprised than me.”

“Like a lot of people, I wrestle with insecurities,” West shares. “There’s no way to say this well, but I couldn’t understand why, out of all the songs that were written, why somebody would cut mine. Early on, I wouldn’t pitch songs because I thought, ‘What if they tell me no?’ But on the other hand, ‘What if they say yes?’ I learned that when you pitch songs, you get a lot of no’s, but sometimes it just takes your time to find the person that song is for.”

“As songwriters, our job is to equip ministries and artists. We are just trying to be true to the Lord and what He’s saying to our hearts, and then prayerfully find the artist who is looking for that particular message in song.”

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Song Snapshots #37: When It Hurts So Bad I Call the Great Physician (Original Couriers)

Song Snapshots is a column featuring the stories behind new and classic Southern Gospel songs.

On their final recording, the original Couriers (Dave Kyllonen, Duane Nicholson, and Neil Enloe) recorded a new song written by Neil Enloe, “When it Hurts So Bad.”

To understand the song, Enloe recalls, you have to understand where he comes from: “I was raised in classic Pentecostalism; very, very, conservative, none of that holy roller stuff. I never saw anyone roll. I never saw anyone very holy, actually.”

“Along with other churches in the area,” he continues, “our church would sponsor a tent meeting every summer. We were bringing these healing evangelists, and they would pray for people. They’d have a ramp going up one side, the evangelist at the top, and then the ramp going down the other side.

“When someone got healed, everyone’s glorifying God, and it was really great. But I always felt bad for the ones that went down the other side, not getting anything. It always bothered me.”

One day, he realized that “there is a better healing than just having the pain go away. Paul calls it the fellowship of His suffering. And I think that pain, in and of itself, gives you a little more insight into what Jesus went through in our behalf.”

This inspired the line “When it hurts so bad I call the Great Physician.” The song’s narrator never ends up getting healed; “the actual punch line,” Enloe shares, is, “I can always count on Him to gently lift me upward, and I rise above my pain and misery.”

“I believe in healing,” he clarifies. “But the song doesn’t promise healing. I’m not going to say, ”Tis Done.'”

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Song Snapshots #36: Give Me Jesus (Couriers)

Song Snapshots is a column featuring the stories behind new and classic Southern Gospel songs.

One day, the Couriers were in downtown Philadelphia. They were visiting a long-time supporter of the group who had invited them over for a meal. “She has gone on to be with the Lord now, but she would come to our concerts for years,” Couriers lead singer Neal Enloe recalls. “She had us come to her house, saying, ‘We want to fix a meal for you.’”

He recalls that her house was on a narrow street and had a tiny porch. “The food wasn’t ready,” he recalls, “so I went out to the front porch just to sit down and think a little bit.”

“All of a sudden,” he says, “the idea for ‘Give Me Jesus’ came to me,” and he wrote it in no time flat.

The song’s message of submission still resonates deeply with him. “I like songs that put me on the altar, because that’s where the most meaningful part of my life has been lived. That’s one of them.”

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Song Snapshots #35: Red Letter Day

Sometimes even the strongest songs take a few years to find a home.

After Kenna Turner West wrote “Red Letter Day,” it took three years of pitching before it was recorded. “I believed in the song,” she recalls, “so I was willing to get a lot of no’s until I found a yes.”

One day, Roger Talley called her to put it on hold for The Talleys, along with a song called “That’s Why I Believe.” The very next day, two other major artists called and asked to place the same two songs on hold! But, of course, the hold had already been granted to The Talleys, who ended up recording both songs. “It took years for ‘Red Letter Day’ to find the right artist and the right project,” she said, “which is why I always tell songwriters who are pitching their own material to never give up on a song. If you believe in it, keep sending it. Eventually, it’ll find its way to the place that it’s supposed to be. There are songs I’ve pitched for years and keep at it because I believe in what they say.”

Red Letter Day is a happy, upbeat song. “But if you knew where the song came from,” she shares, “you might see it differently.” One summer morning, she was on her way home from dropping off her then-nine year old son at Vacation Bible School. He had already undergone four eye surgeries, and the fifth was scheduled for the following day. Her heart was broken for him. “I just remember driving up the hill by our home with the sun’s glare on my windshield, saying to myself, ‘Come whatever, it can only get better,’ which became part of the chorus.”

“It’s crazy, but it’s on my hardest days that I write my favorite ‘happy’ songs because I am speaking hope to my own heart,” she adds. “Regardless of what is going on in my life, God’s still good, He’s still on the throne, and He’s still holding all things together by the power of His Word. That’s what ‘Red Letter Day’ reminds me.”

When she hears the song today, she still remembers that day. “When I hear ‘Red Letter Day,’ I remember how badly I needed the Lord to help get me through that day, so for me, it’s not just a ‘sunny’ song but a declaration of faith. I literally put both feet on the floor that morning, determined to walk that day out with joy, even though my heart was breaking. That’s where that song came from.”

Watch on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuVy0QZKDY8

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Song Snapshots #34: If She Could

“Some songs are written as stories for other people to tell, but some songs I write because the story is mine,” Kenna Turner West shares. “If She Could” falls into that second category.

Her grandmother battled Alzheimer’s for about ten years. It reached the point where it was too dangerous to leave her alone, so West’s mother moved her to Tennessee to live with her.

“Granny was very healthy; she just couldn’t remember,” West said. “It was so hard watching her fail and watching my mom struggle with losing her mom.”

“One day,” she adds, “my mom walked into my grandmother’s room to wake her up and Granny was sitting on the side of the bed. Granny’s name was Estelle, but Mom called her Stellar.”

“My mother said, ‘Good morning, Stellar.’ Granny said, ‘Good morning! I just feel like I know you.’ My mom said, ‘Well, yeah, I’m your baby.’”

“My grandmother began to just sob. She said, ‘What kind of mother doesn’t know her own child?’”

“My mom climbed into the bed with her, tucked my granny’s head into her shoulder, and rocked her until she quit crying, just like my grandmother had done for my mom so many times as a child. When Granny quit crying, she leaned back and looked at my mom with great clarity and said, ‘One day I’ll know you.’”

When Kenna Turner West wrote the song “If She Could,” she wasn’t even sure if she would share it with anyone. She was just writing about her grandmother: “She struggles to hold to things that are fading away / Stares out the window with hours with nothing to say.” The chorus says: “She can’t even remember if the old days were all that good / she’d tell you all about it if she could.”

Her grandmother’s phrase, “One day I’ll know you,” resonated particularly deeply. West thought about the passage in I Corinthians 13, where we shall “know as we are known.”

“That’s why I wrote the song,” she said. “To remind families like ours who are slowly losing their loved ones to Alzheimer’s the promises of God that are theirs in Christ.” At the end of the song, the lyric, ‘When I get to Heaven / I won’t be the same / And when I see you / I’ll know your name,’ was based on a real conversation that my grandmother had with my mom.”

“If She Could” was the story of Kenna’s grandmother, but it was the story of Sheri Easter’s grandmother, as well. Joyce Martin, Karen Peck Gooch, and Sheri Easter recorded a project together, Best of Friends. They included “If She Could” on that project; Jeff & Sheri Easter also later recorded it on a live DVD.

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Song Snapshots #33: Ask Me Why

Jason Cox and Kenna Turner West co-wrote “Ask Me Why.” Cox brought an idea to their co-writing session called “It’s Love,” with the idea of structuring a chorus around questions someone was asking—“ask me why,” “ask me where.”

They decided to structure the song as a story around someone coming to Christ. “Our original version was about a guy,” West recalls; “He slipped through the door / sat on the last pew.” West released a solo project with that version of the lyric.

One day, she was at Daywind, where an engineer was mixing her version of “Ask Me Why.” Steve Mauldin contacted her; he was producing Legacy Five’s A Wonderful Life project, and said they were looking for a fast song and a song with a 6/8 signature. “Ask Me Why” has a 6/8 signature, so she immediately wondered if it might be the right fit.

“So I sent it over to Terry Franklin to do a male vocal, so they could hear it as a guy doing it,” she recalls.

She had never heard a story Scott Fowler had started sharing in concerts, about how Patty Bahour, a Muslim lady, had accidentally purchased tickets to a Legacy Five concert, and had eventually come to know the Lord. But when Scott heard the song, he immediately thought of Patty’s story. So he emailed Kenna, asking if it would be okay if he turned the “he” into a “she.”

“It was very thoughtful of him to ask,” West said; “I was completely fine with that. As songwriters, we’re just trying to equip singers with songs that they can share. I had no idea that changing a pronoun would make the song fit such a significant story in their ministry.”

West pitched the song one week, and Legacy Five recorded it the following week. But there was even more: Steve Mauldin’s email came on a Wednesday. The next day, West, Lee Black, and Jason Cox were sitting in a writer’s room at BMI. West commented, “Hey, Legacy Five needs a fast song. Let’s write a fast song!” They wrote “I’m Still Amazed” on Thursday, recorded and submitted a demo on Friday, and Legacy Five recorded it the next Monday!

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Song Snapshots #32: He’s More than Just a Swear Word (Couriers, Blackwood Brothers, Collingsworth Family)

Song Snapshots is a column featuring the stories behind new and classic Southern Gospel songs.

Neil Enloe’s father was a barber. He describes him as a “fun-loving, happy guy, who never had a sad day in his life.” But, Enloe recalls, “He loved his Lord, and he was dead serious about God. He was a great role model.”

“In his barber shop,” Enloe continues, “he could not stand to have the name of Jesus berated or blasphemed. In his shop, one wall had a sign, ‘No swearing, please.’ Another wall had a sign that said, ‘No profane language, please.’ My dad was a very crude person when it comes to design; he tore the flap off a cardboard box, and with a child’s crayon, he wrote a sign and thumb-tacked it to a third wall. And it said, and this one he made up, ‘A feller’s tougher who is not a cusser.’”

Enloe recalls the impact of his father’s stand: “So here I am, and going into my dad’s barber shop. In front of his customers, when they would blaspheme the name of the Lord, he would stop, mid-stroke, whether it was shaving, or cutting hair, or whatever, and he’d say, ‘Look, this is my Lord and my Savior, we don’t talk like that here.’ So at the expense of losing business, my dad stood up for his Lord, and that deeply impressed me as a little guy. So in the years that followed, I just decided to make a statement, too, and that’s where that song really came from, my childhood.”

The song was one of the most popular songs the Couriers ever introduced. It made the rounds in the 1970s; the Blackwood Brothers, Cathedrals, Dixie Echoes, Dixie Melody Boys, Downings, Florida Boys, Kingsmen, and Sego Brothers were among the groups who recorded it. After receiving little attention for decades, the song was recently brought back by the Collingsworth Family on their 2007 We Believe CD.

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Song Snapshots #31: We All Come To The Cross

Just like the rest of us, Southern Gospel’s co-writers don’t always stay focused on the task at hand. But unlike the rest of us, that can sometimes be a very, very good thing.

One day, Kenna Turner West, Tony Wood, and Lee Black were working on a story song. Somehow, they got off of the topic at hand, and she started sharing her testimony.

“I’m fortunate that I grew up in Gospel music,” she recalls. Her father, Ken Turner, sang with the Palmetto State Quartet and the Dixie Echoes, before joining the Blackwood Brothers when she was seven. “I grew up backstage with the people that are on the mainstage now. I knew who Jesus was, but I didn’t know Him as Savior at all.”

“When I was eighteen years old,” she adds, “I was singing songs at a club in Memphis. I came to Christ watching Jerry Falwell on television on a Sunday night.”

West also shared her mother’s testimony with Wood and Black; her mother came to Christ at a Nicky Cruz crusade in the early ‘80s. “I was sharing how I came to the Lord watching Christian television. My mom came to the Lord at a crusade. We all have our story; somehow we all came to the cross.”

“I was just sharing my testimony with my friends,” she recalls. “I was crying, so I didn’t even notice what I had said. Tony and Lee were looking at each other, like, ‘She doesn’t even know what she said!’ Thankfully, they heard a song title in there.”

They never finished the other song. But they did write “We All Came To the Cross.”

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Song Snapshots #30: Mary’s Wish

Song Snapshots is a column featuring the stories behind new and classic Southern Gospel songs.

Ask Joseph Habedank which song, of all the songs he has written, is his all-time favorite. You might be surprised! He won’t name one of his #1 hits, or even his Song of the Year-winning landmark hit “If You Knew Him.” He will name a song Ivan Parker recorded in 2011, “Mary’s Wish.”

Joseph Habedank and Matthew Holt became close friends and began writing songs together when they were both members of The Perrys. They continued writing together after Matthew left the group in 2008.

One day, shortly after Matthew’s departure, the Perrys bus was parked at a Wal-Mart in Huntington, Tennessee. Matthew drove out to Huntington to meet Joseph at the bus and take him out to write and do lunch. As they walked into O’Charley’s, Matthew asked Joseph, “What’s the song you’re wanting to write?”

Joseph sang him the chorus to “Mary’s Wish.” He recalls, “Matthew started crying, which he doesn’t do very often—he’s not a crier. It moved him.” After lunch, parked Matthew’s car in an alley next to a Kohl’s, and finished the song in his car.

The song was inspired by a comment Matthew’s wife Lindsey made while she was expecting their first child (their son, Fletcher). That December, as Fletcher’s due date drew near, she told Matthew, “Now that the time’s come, I’m almost a little apprehensive about exposing him to the world. I almost wish I could keep him inside of me.”

She paused, then added, “I can’t imagine how Mary must have felt.”

“That was one of the more special songs we’ve ever written,” Habedank recalls, “probably my favorite thing that I’ve ever had a hand in.”

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Song Snapshots #29: The Joy of Serving Jesus (Couriers, Blackwood Brothers)

Song Snapshots is a column featuring the stories behind new and classic Southern Gospel songs.

“The Joy of Knowing Jesus” is one of Neil Enloe’s best-remembered songs. But when he’s asked about the song’s inspiration, he answers, “This is not that interesting.” But then he clarifies: “I mean, it’s interesting, but it’s not inspirational.”

He elaborates: “We did missions for years in the West Indies. We were in Barbados one year for ten or twelve days. We had an outdoor crusade every night, in a park, and huge crowds. But during the day, I had an occasion to go back to the church, and on the platform, they had an old upright piano. I was sitting at the piano musing about Jim Hill’s songs ‘What a Day That Will Be’ and ‘For God So Loved,’ his two big songs.”

He thought, These songs are so simple. There’s a lot of songs in Southern Gospel that are just really ultra-simple. But simplicity is very, very powerful.” And as he was thinking about those songs, he thought, “Well, I could do that. I could write a song that simple!”

“So I wrote ‘The Joy of Knowing Jesus,’ and little did I know that it would connect! It’s not an inspiring story at all, and it wasn’t meant to be funny, but that’s just the way it happened!”

Within a decade, many of Southern Gospel’s leading groups, including the Blackwood Brothers, the Hoppers, the Inspirations, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Rebels, and the Singing Americans had recorded versions of the song. In recent years, the Dixie Melody Boys and the Blackwood Brothers both brought the song back with their 2007 and 2010 versions, respectively.

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