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.”