Matthew Lawson: Kenna, thank you so much for chatting with us a little bit today. For those who may not be familiar with you, would you introduce yourself and also tell us about your family?
Kenna West: Sure thing! I think I’ll start with my family—
My father, Ken Turner, sang bass for many years with The Blackwood Brothers, and with The Dixie Echoes and The Palmetto State Quartet before that; so, I basically grew up in gospel music. Then in 1983 when I was a freshman in college, I received Christ as my Savior and about a month later began traveling with the Blackwoods. I sang with them for several years before moving from Memphis to Charlotte with a newly launched solo ministry. That was 36 years ago, and though I do as many speaking dates as I do concerts these days, I think most fans of southern gospel music would know me more as a songwriter.
In 1992, I married my husband, Kerry, who is an audio engineer for country singer Ronnie Milsap. Kerry is also an amazing musician, as is our son, Graham, who is in grad school working on an algorithm that measures the rate at which galaxies collide. Go, homeschoolers!
ML: “West” is a pretty iconic name in Nashville. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your family’s history in this great music?
KW: Folks may remember Kerry’s mom, country music singer Dottie West, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year. That was such a thrill for our family because Kerry is so very proud of his mother, and rightly so—Dottie was the first woman in country music to win a Grammy Award. Sadly, she passed away in 1991 from injuries she sustained in a car accident on the way to The Grand Ole Opry. You can imagine how difficult that was for the family, but what sustained Kerry through that season of loss was remembering that just a few months before the accident, he got to walk his mom to the altar of our church and hear her confess Jesus as Savior.
ML: As a singer you work on quite a bit of songwriter demos and have recorded several solo projects. Is singing publicly something you pursue avidly or is just when “God calls,” so to speak?
KW: You are so sweet! Okay, here’s my career in a nut shell—
When I went on the road fulltime in the 80’s, music was primarily how I communicated the Gospel. In time, that grew to include songwriting; and then about 15 years ago, I wrote a book that opened a lot of amazing doors for me to go out and speak. Then in 2011, I sort-of transitioned from being a “singer who is also a songwriter” to a “songwriter who is also a singer,” if that makes sense. Songwriting has really changed the trajectory of my career.
On some levels, I attribute the shift to our son. When Graham graduated high school at 16, we felt like he was too young to move away to college, so that meant he’d have to commute to school every day—but he has problems with his vision and can’t drive, so I came off the road to take him to school every day. Monday through Friday for four years, I’d drive 45 minutes to his school in Nashville and an hour back home; and to make the best use of the time in between, I’d drive to my publisher’s office and write songs. That turned into about 100 titles a year—songs like “Revival,” “Small Town Someone,” “I Am Blessed,” and “Say Amen,” all of which went on to win Dove Awards.
Our world is a little different now—Graham graduated from college at 20 with degrees in math and physics and now lives on campus at grad school, and while that allows me the freedom to get back out on the road more, I decided last year to go back to school and work toward a master’s degree in Theological Studies. So, basically, I write songs most every day and then come home and do homework; then on weekends I am typically either singing at my church or traveling somewhere to speak on Saturday and sing on Sunday. And all of that, mind you, is happening smackdab in the middle of menopause. Life is interesting, to say the least!
ML: Do you ever find yourself getting a little “drained” mentally/spiritually? If so, what do you do to replenish yourself so you can keep “pouring out?”
KW: As a songwriter, I am very fortunate to spend most every day with some of my best friends, and if one of us is ever feeling weary or depleted from “life,” there is someone right there to not only pour into the song but to pour into their friend. Sometimes, a co-write is almost like church in that regard, or a Bible study, or a prayer meeting—or free therapy, we joke.
Kidding aside, I wish I could tell you how many times someone has walked into a writing session in tears about something going on in their life and somehow those tears turned into a song. That is so very redemptive!
That’s a lot of what songwriting has been for me for the last 20 years—whatever I am walking through, I write about it. If I’m feeling discouraged, I might try to write a song to remind my heart that Jesus is the lifter of my head; or if I am tempted to worry, I might write a song about not giving in to fear or about the power of prayer. There are so many songs we’ve written over the years that have spoken directly to my heart like that—from “Everybody’s Going Through Something” to “He Can Take It” to “Sometimes He Whispers” to “Victory Shout.” Sometimes, Matthew, the very thing that we as songwriters need to hear to stir our faith is the very thing that someone else needs to hear, and the very thing that an artist wants to remind them in a song. That is so very beautiful to me!
ML: Are there any recent/upcoming song cuts that you’re excited about and can share with us?
KW: I am pretty much blown away by how “Even Me” by The Triumphant Quartet is being received right now, as well as “Victory Shout,” “Lord Knows,” and “I’d Like To Meet The Preacher.” The next few months are going to be super-exciting, as well, because we have songs on a bunch of projects that are about to be released: Legacy 5, Brian Free and Assurance, Greater Vision, Tribute, Wilburn and Wilburn, The Nelons, The Kingdom Heirs, Sisters, Adam Crabb, Jeff and Sheri Easter, 11th Hour, HighRoad, The Bowlings—plus a few more that I can’t mention just yet. Really, it’s all God’s favor, and we are so very grateful!
ML: What is God currently teaching you in this season of life?
KW: Right now, I’m learning how valuable “time” is. I am 54 years old, and every now and then, I call myself “middle-aged” in front of my son. He is quick to joke that unless I live to be 108, “this” isn’t the middle. It’s funny and painful, all at the same time, and it makes me mindful of not only how I want to spend my days but the hours in them.
And the longer I live, the more I realize that the calling God placed on my life 36 years ago hasn’t really changed, though there are seasons it finds a new voice. In the early years of ministry, I communicated primarily through singing; then I began to teach more; then I began to write more. It has never been about “replacing,” but “adding to.” And “growing.” As my faith deepens, so does the ministry, which all flows out of one calling: to “creatively communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Simply put, it’s all about making much of the name of Jesus! And since 1983, that’s not only how I’ve spent my life, it’s all I want to do. 😊