WKU grad makes a name for herself in country music

Sarah Yaacoub

Few success stories begin with slamming a door into someone, but Jessie Key’s does.  

Key is a Glendale native and 2017 graduate of WKU’s criminology program. She switched to a primarily online education program after her freshman year to simultaneously complete her degree and pursue a music career.  

“I knew that I was supposed to do music,” Key said.  

Key said she spent her first few months in Nashville “just kind of floundering around,” unsure of how to get into the music industry. It wasn’t until she met Rob Galbraith, now her co-publisher and producer, that she was able to make headway in what would become her full-time career.  

Galbraith had connections in the industry that helped Key with networking.

“He knew Johnny Cash, he’s played on an Elvis record, he was Ronnie Milsap’s producer,” she said. “He helped me get a record deal.”  

The story of how Galbraith and Key met is an unusual one.   

“I was running late to a vocal lesson with my boots in one hand, and I just smashed this man with a door,” Key said. “Flash forward to today—he’s my co-publisher and producer.”  

Key said she began working with Milsap and Galbraith as a stand-in for female vocal parts, helping them figure out how duets would sound with a female singer.

“So, basically, what I’d do is I’d sing ‘No Getting over Me,’ for instance, and we’d say, ‘This key works for females,’ and they would send it to, say, Kacey Musgraves or Dolly Parton. Any female duettist,” Key said.  

Key rose to national prominence after singing in a PBS-broadcast tribute event with Milsap.

“A couple weeks ago, my truck broke down, and I was showing my little sister some of Ray Charles’ music,” Key said. “A couple nights later, we had a show downtown. Ronnie was talking to Rob and asked, ‘Do you think Jessie would do me a big favor and sing the Margie Hendricks part on [Ray Charles’ version of] ‘You Are My Sunshine?’’”

Key said she replied with a resounding yes.

“I was kind of in shock,” Key said. “My eyes started tearing up, and I started looking around. I was just elated.”  

Key described it as “a weird feeling,” saying she just couldn’t believe it.

Earlier this month, Milsap and Key performed “You Are My Sunshine” together at “An Opry Salute to Ray Charles,” a performance and PBS special sponsored by the Ray Charles Foundation held at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

“There’s been a lot of prominent moments: getting a publishing deal was a big deal for me, getting to be on the Ronnie album was a big deal for me,” Key said. “For me so far, the Ray Charles tribute is definitely the feather in the cap, the cherry on top.”

Key said her admiration for Charles and his music was part of what made the performance so special.

“There’s not an artist that I love more or want to be like more than Ray Charles,” she said “So, to be asked by Ronnie to do it was just pretty surreal.”

Key is currently signed to Wrensong Entertainment, a Nashville-based music publishing company. She said her next steps include “just kind of looking at and beginning the process of courtship for finding a label and producing my own album.”

The most important thing she’s learned about the industry over her four years in Nashville seeking opportunities and working in music is that it isn’t a continuous or linear career, she said.

“It’s a very ‘mountains and valleys’ business, and that’s part of the joy of it, but it’s learning to be content in the in-betweens,” Key said.

Features reporter Sarah Yaacoub can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow her on social media at @sarah.yaacoub.