Growing up in Moore, Oklahoma, a small town outside of Oklahoma City, Kellie Coffey must have wished upon a pretty powerful star. She has a publishing contract with industry giant Warner Chappell; a record deal with BNA Records Nashville; a top 10 single; opened for Superstar Kenny Chesney on his Senorita's and Margaritas tour; a top 5 album sales debut; a top 15 2nd single; and 250,000 CD's sold. The Academy of Country Music's reigning Top New Female Vocalist, Kellie's journey to Nashville and career in Country Music has taken some unusual turns.
"When I was a little girl, my dad always said to me, 'You are a singer,'" remembers Kellie. She has been a singer for nearly as long as she can remember, though her family background was not particularly musical. There was an upright piano in the den, which her father, a dentist, played by ear. Her grandfather played the clarinet, and both of her brothers -- she is the middle of three children -- have good voices. Like countless country singers, she began singing in church. Her undeniable gifts were noted early on, and she enrolled in voice and piano instruction. "My teacher Barbara Ramsey made me feel like I was special, like I had a talent, and that was so important to me as a young girl," she says.
When she was nine years old, her parents took her to the Oklahoma Opry, where she made her big stage debut. "I sang "Pecos Promenade," the Tanya Tucker song, and "Dancing Your Memory Away," that Charley McClain recorded. It was the first time I ever sang with a band. I was so excited. The band started playing and I started singing. When I got to the chorus the background singers came in. My mom says I kept singing but slowly turned my head to look at them and when I turned back toward the audience I just broke out into a huge smile. I didn't know how to end the song either so I just kept repeating the chorus over and over. The band would try to end it but I'd come back in again!"
Kellie led a pretty typical, Midwestern, all-American teenage life: a mix of study, extracurricular activities, weekends at the lake, friends, steady boyfriend, school dances, and cruising 12th Street, the main drag in Moore. Now there must be something in the water in Moore, Oklahoma because Kellie attended the same high school as Toby Keith, albeit a few years later, and hit songwriter Brett James (Martina McBride's "Blessed", Rascal Flatt's "Love You Out Loud", Jessica Andrew's "Who I am") is a family friend. After graduation, she enrolled in Oklahoma University, about a half hour from her home. She pledged Tri-Delt, went to class, studied hard, joined in on campus activities, and tried out for all the school musicals. Though she was majoring in Vocal Performance and she had dreamed about it her entire life, it was not until her junior year that she knew she could have a career as an entertainer. "We were putting on the annual revue, The Sooner Scandals, and in between acts I sang "Save The Best For Last," a song Vanessa Williams had recorded. It was one of those electric, magic moments. I was pouring my heart out in this song and I felt a connection with the audience. It was amazing. I knew then that it was what I wanted to do."
"All through high school and college, I was pretty grounded. When I graduated, it felt like it was time to fly. My goal was to make a living as a singer. I had a friend from OU who had moved to L.A. the year before and had an extra room. So, I packed up my car and headed west. Leaving Oklahoma was very difficult for me and for my whole family, especially my mom. She was a stay at home mom. We are very close but my parents were very supportive. They always believed in me."
Getting established in L.A. wasn't easy. To pay the bills, Kellie got a job as a singing waitress -- "I was a much better singer than waitress. Those poor people I waited on!" She also began writing songs. "When I first started writing, it was because of a break-up," she explains. "So all of my early songs were about love lost. Those songs helped me get through some tough times." She also enrolled in a singing/performance class.
"That was the best experience for me," she says. "I made good friends there, which was important to me. I felt a real sense of community with people who were looking for the same things in life, who shared my dream. I learned so much, and it was a real growth experience for me, just like living in L.A. I had never been truly on my own before, so it was important to me."
The ball really started rolling after she made a demo tape that she sent around, and began getting work on recording sessions and in live shows. She sang backgrounds for Barbra Striesand's Millenium Concert, recorded songs for the Disney Theme Parks (You can still hear Kellie at Christmas time at Disneyland singing "White Christmas" as snow falls on Main Street and at Epcot's nightly fireworks extravaganza, Illuminations). "I was working more and more but people kept asking me to take the country out of my voice. I'm glad I had those experiences but at certain point as an artist, I decided I wanted to be true to myself, my voice, who I was. That's where my heart was so more and more of my singing work was as a demo singer for songwriters, singing country songs." About that time, during a workshop of a musical, she met Geoff Koch who was playing one of the leads. He wrote songs for several television shows, among them Walker Texas Ranger. Kellie's subtle twang helped her land a job singing and writing songs for the hit television show, a source of income that allowed her to realize her goal of making a living as a singer. Kellie was able to leave her waitress days behind.
Kellie began to find her niche as a songwriter and, given her roots, it was not surprising that it was decidedly country. Nashville seemed like the logical next step. "About four years after I moved to LA, I started making trips to Nashville, checking out the scene and trying to get a deal. I knew what I really wanted to do and once I focused on my dream, it all started to come together. Doors began to open for me."
Her friendship with Geoff had turned romantic, and she said yes to his marriage proposal. While planning her wedding, she also doubled her efforts to get a deal. The unlikeliest location for a country music showcase would have to be a Kosher-Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, California, but following her invitation-only performance at Genghis Cohen, she was offered a development deal by Judy Stakee with Warner-Chappell.
"Judy has been so instrumental in my career, as a mentor and a friend. She had me co-write with JD Martin (a transplanted Nashville writer who had hits with Terri Clark and Reba) in LA. Then she started sending me to Tennessee to write with Warner Chappell's Nashville writers. My goal at that time was to write the songs I needed for a pitch CD."
In 1998, she had five strong songs -- she co-wrote all but one -- and with JD Martin producing, put together a demo CD, which was sent to all of the A&R people on Music Row. Soon after, she received a call from RCA's Renee Bell, who invited her to come in for a meeting. Kellie did a very casual set of three songs in the RCA conference room, a performance that prompted an encore for label head Joe Galante. Before getting back on the plane to LA, she was signed to a development deal with the label. Kellie and Geoff got an apartment and then bought a home in Nashville.
"Renee set up meetings with several top Nashville record producers, and I sang for all of them. The label asked me to choose who I felt most comfortable with, and for me, it was Dann Huff. I love what he does, the music that he makes, that he is also such an incredible musician. We recorded three songs: "When You Lie Next To Me," "I Just Knew," and "Whatever It Takes." The label loved them, and we got the green light to go ahead and make an album. I have always loved the studio process. It was always fun to interpret people's songs when I was a demo singer. But these were my songs I was doing! It was an incredible experience. I had a blast."
With the release of Texas Plates, the first single off her second CD also produced by Huff, Kellie is poised to take her career to the next level. She is opening for George Strait's tour in January 2004. Kellie must have wished on a powerful star, her dreams seem to be coming true.
--- from the official Kellie Coffey website