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 #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 #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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Question of the Week: Kenna Turner West

For this week’s question of the week, I caught up with songwriter Kenna Turner West, co-author of Lauren Talley’s new radio single “The Extra Mile.” I did a feature interview with her here, but wanted to catch up about the new song. (You can play the song in the sidebar on Lauren’s site; more about Saturday’s event, named after the song, is here.)

Question: What inspired the song, The Extra Mile?

Answer: I remember the day that song was written. I was in a co-write with Barry Weeks and Tony Wood one afternoon, and Barry was noodling at the piano while we were getting ready to throw out songs ideas. What he was simply playing off the cuff felt to me like a perfect fit for an idea I had called “The Extra Mile.”

The hook was centered around Matthew 5:41 where Jesus addresses a law of the day that said a Roman soldier could force a person in subjugation to carry his armor or materials for one mile. And since Israel was under Roman rule, it was a common practice for the people to which Jesus was speaking. But He encouraged them, saying basically, “We are required to go one mile…but go two.” That kind of selflessness would create opportunities to demonstrate the Love of God that resided within them.

It’s the same with us today. For example, as Believers, we read in scripture that the tithe belongs to the Lord, and as cheerful givers, we bring it to the storehouse each Sunday. But we can choose to be “second milers” in our giving and also bring an offering. Not only that, we can BE an offering. It doesn’t have to be something epic. Instead of just holding the door at the store for an elderly person, we can do the inconvenient thing and carry their groceries to their car. That is the second mile—the extra mile. It’s going above and beyond what the moment requires for the opportunity to look like the One who resides within us and to bear fruit.

Tony and Barry liked the idea, and we decided to write several stories of people going the extra mile to help others. It wasn’t hard for me to come up with a suggestion for verse one. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans—when most of us were sending money, food and water, and teams from our churches to help rebuild communities—family members of mine near Jackson, Mississippi, went the second mile and opened up their home to a family that had lost everything in the storm. That measure of inconvenient Love had a tremendous impact on me, and Blaine and Janie’s inspirational “extra mile” became our first verse.

The rest of the writing session is a blur. If I remember correctly, while Barry and I worked on the melody of the chorus, Tony wrote most of verse two. And at the end of the day, it felt like we had written something quite special. When Lauren Talley heard the song, its message resonated in her heart. She told me at NQC a few months ago that what cinched it for her was the line about Love reaching to the “broken ones.” As an artist, she heard that lyric as the perfect follow up to their hit song, “The Broken Ones,” which was amazing to me because none of the songwriters made that connection.

I love the song, and Tony, Barry, and I are honored that Lauren would record it.

* * *

The Extra Mile
Kenna Turner West, Tony Wood, Barry Weeks

1. Two hundred miles away
A storm had just blown through
Before the sun came up the next day
The church was on the move
With so many hurting
Left with nothing of their own
That’s when people of the Lord
Opened up their homes

Chorus
Love goes the extra mile
And gives itself away
It reaches to the broken ones
To help restore their faith
Till the lost are redeemed
Till every heart is reconciled
Love goes the extra mile

2. At a Wednesday night church meeting
A prayer request was made
For a husband and a wife whose vows
Were just about to break
And when they said amen that evening
The Spirit stirred some friends
To drive across that little town
And go to pray with them

(chorus)

Bridge
It never plays it safe
It goes on unafraid

(chorus)

(Reprinted by permission)

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An Interview with Kenna Turner West & Lee Black

When Legacy Five released their current project, Just Stand, I wrote a very positive review of it here. The project was full of standout tracks, but of all those tracks, the one that stood out the most was “Faithful to the Cross.”

I had seen the authors’ credits on various projects, here and there, but honestly had no idea who they were. I had almost worked up the nerve to email Kenna Turner West (who was the one I could track down via Google) and ask for an interview, when, out of the blue, the other co-writer, Lee Black (who, by the way, is a guy) sent me an email out of the blue thanking me for the review.

Of course, I took this as the open door I needed and set up this interview.

DJM: What led to your interest in songwriting?

Kenna: I grew up in the music industry. My dad [Ken Turner] sang bass with The Blackwood Brothers for many years, so I was raised backstage listening to songs like Dottie Rambo’s “He Looked Beyond My Fault” and Lanny Wolfe’s “Precious Blood,” which was probably the first lyric that completely wiped me out. What a wonderful song.

Lee: I first took an interest in writing at about 13 or 14. They were really bad attempts at the kind of pop, R&B, and country songs I was listening to. Nothing that I would ever let anyone hear now even if I had copies of them…but that’s when the bug bit!

DJM: How did you get started?

Lee: I’ve always loved writing and initially thought I would be a journalist. As I continued with piano lessons, band, choir…those kinds of things…the writing interest took on more of a specific focus with songwriting. And that interest really started growing throughout my college years. That’s when I first had the thought, “I would really love to do this professionally.” I entered some songwriting contests here and there, had some success at it, and met some writer and publisher types who really encouraged me. So my wife and I decided early on to move to Nashville and try to make a go of the writing thing.  My first cut was on Brian Free and Assurance’s first project after Brian left Gold City.  I was working on a song by song basis with Dave Clark and a publishing company he had called First Verse Music. I signed with Daywind Music Publishing in the late 90’s and wrote there for a few years. In 2000, a college roommate of mine called and said he was planting a church in Fairhope, AL and asked if I would come and serve as worship leader. After a lot of prayer, we felt like the Lord was leading us here. We have been here almost nine years now – some of that time in full time worship ministry and about four and half years in a part time role as I took a job in music publishing at Integrity Music, across the bay, in Mobile, AL. That time was a really good education for me in publishing and songwriting. I was exposed to SO many songs and had the opportunity to work with writers and A&R people in planning projects.

Kenna: I’ve been on the road as a singer and speaker for twenty-six years, but in the late 90’s I took a staff position at our church near Nashville for several years. One night at a Bible study, a friend who didn’t know I was a “closet songwriter” told me that I should be doing something with my songs…she even loaned us her husband’s studio to make it happen. A few months later, another friend from church who worked for The Spring Hill Music Group gave the songs to Phil Johnson who called the next day and asked me to write for them. Within a month, I had a title cut on Karen Peck and New River called “A Taste of Grace,” and a few weeks after that I had a cut on Jeff and Sheri Easter called “We’re Not Gonna Bow” which was a #1 song and a Dove Award nominee. It’s wild…four years later I was voted songwriter of the year, yet if it wasn’t for two friends from church, my songs would still be in a notebook under my bed. Now I am at Word Publishing, thanks to Dave Clark, and got a second Dove nomination this year for a song I wrote with Lee and Sue Smith called “Big Mighty God.” It’s crazy favor.

DJM: Do you mostly co-write with other authors, or is that just what’s gotten published so far?

Lee: Like I said, I live in Fairhope, AL…so contrary to popular belief, you do not have to live in Nashville to write songs, but it does help to have a presence there. So I usually spend about three days, every other week, in Nashville writing. I plan those trips specifically to co-write. Over the last couple of years, I’ve written close to 100 songs a year but only five or six of those a year are single writes. I love the co-writing process and feel like some of my best songs are co-written. There’s just something that happens in a co-writing situation when you’re able to bounce ideas off of someone else and get different perspectives.

Kenna: With the exception of a few songs I wrote with Twila Labar while I was at SH like “Get About God’s Business,” I didn’t do a lot of co-writing until I signed with Word. I remember telling Sue a few years ago that I had a fear of going into a co-write and “firing blanks.” She said not to worry about it…that some days it’s about fellowship over a good cup of coffee. She doesn’t remember telling me that, but wow, it changed everything for me. Now I actually prefer to co-write. It’s probably 70% talking and 30% writing. Unless you are Lee, Allison Speer, and me, then it’s 80% laughing and 20% writing.

DJM: In the co-writing process, do you see yourself primarily as a lyricist or a composer?

Lee: I feel like I’m a jack of all trades and master of none.  It depends on who I’m writing with.  Sometimes I have to be the melody guy, sometimes I have to be the lyric guy, sometimes it’s a give and take with both.

Kenna: I hear the melody and the lyric in my head at the same time, so I am a bit of both, I guess.

DJM: How many songs have you written? How many have been cut?

Kenna: I have probably written a thousand songs…most of them need to stay unheard, but some are really special. I’ve had some great cuts on The Talley Trio, Brian Free and Assurance, Karen Peck and New River, Jeff and Sheri Easter, Best of Friends (Sheri, Joyce, and Karen), Ivan Parker, Legacy Five, The Hoppers, Lordsong, Mike Lefevre Quartet, Larry Ford…a bunch of amazing folks. Next year, I have a co-write on Lauren Talley’s new project, several with Mike and Kelly Bowling, and a handful on the new Sisters release…some of those are co-writes by Lee and me.

Lee: Yeah… I’d say the same thing about mine: some of them don’t need to see the light of day!  But I’ve had cuts by Ivan Parker, The Nelons, The Ruppes, Mike LeFevre Quartet, Brian Free and Assurance, Legacy Five, among others.  And, like Kenna said, some that I’m excited about for next year!

DJM: Of your songs that have been cut, what are some of your highlights, some of your favorites?

Lee: This is funny timing on this question, because this week I would definitely answer that question this way: Our kids at church are presenting a Christmas musical, for which I co-wrote songs, this Sunday night.  Over the years, I’ve had a few cuts that have been pretty cool.  But there absolutely has been nothing sweeter than hearing my own children sing my songs.  Knowing that they’re “getting it” and knowing that something I’ve had a hand in writing is helping to shape their faith is incredibly rewarding.  The cuts will come and go – I feel like this stuff is eternal.

Kenna: I love “Red Letter Day” by The Talley Trio. But my sentimental favorite is a Sheri Easter cut on the Best of Friends project called “If She Could.” I wrote it about my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, yet every word of the song is about her grandmother as well.

DJM: Touching on what prompted this mini-interview, you recently had an incredible song on Legacy Five’s “Just Stand” project. What sparked the idea for the song “Faithful to the Cross”?

Lee: So many times in a Nashville writing room, the conversation goes like this: Who’s looking? What do they need? Oh… let’s write that. Kenna and I wrote “Faithful To The Cross in February of last year.” This was one of those great days when we didn’t have anybody specifically we were targeting. We just wanted to write a song that moved us…

Kenna: That day, another writer was supposed to join us but had to cancel. So Lee and I started throwing out hooks like always to see what we wanted to chase down. I mentioned a song I had written a few years ago that had a strong chorus but weak verses. The back half of the chorus said, “Forgetting what’s behind me, counting it as loss. Faithful to the finish, faithful to the Cross.”

Lee: It immediately grabbed me. I love that idea of running the race well, finishing strong…that thought of leaving a legacy for those behind us. I remember at one point, as we were singing through the chorus, Kenna pointing to her arms getting the “glory bumps” and thinking we were really on to something.

When Kenna and I write, we will get a work tape finished, then I’ll go home, record a piano track in MIDI, and email it to Kenna’s husband Kerry who is a GREAT engineer. They have a studio in their home. And depending on whether the pitch is male or female, she or I will sing the lead on the demo and then we add BGV’s…

Kenna: Lee came over and sang this amazing vocal on the song and I immediately pitched it to Scott Fowler. Our demo didn’t have background vocals on it yet so the song didn’t come off as powerful as it was written, and they passed on it. So I shot it over to Terry Franklin for BGV’s. The night we finished the mix, I emailed Scott again about the song, but he said they were tracking two days later and that their song list was already finalized. I resent the song anyway…it couldn’t hurt to try again.. He emailed back a few hours later and told me that they were going to find a slot for it.

DJM: I know the song just came out, but have you heard any neat testimonies or stories about the song yet?

Kenna: I got the sweetest note on FB from a man who had just lost his father, saying that every word of the lyric was about his dad. He thanked us for writing it…made me cry. Scott Fowler also had a nice piece on his blog about the song.

DJM: Anything else you wanted to share with the readers?

Lee: Just that feel privileged to get to do what I love.  And grateful that occasionally those songs that I love writing end up getting recorded.  Big blessing.

Kenna: I am thankful that as I mature in Christ, the songs do, as well. And I am thankful for the friends I have made through co-writing, like Lee and his family. God is so good!

DJM: How can people get in touch with you? Do you have a website?

Kenna: I am on Facebook, or you can holler at me on my web site: www.KennaTurnerWest.com.

Lee: I Facebook and Twitter.  I have a MySpace that doesn’t get updated too much.  No website.

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