Hitting A High Note: Hilltopper tackles Music City

Glendale junior Jessie Key sings during her performance on Sunday, Feb. 28, at the Country Nashville in Nashville, Tennessee. Key and her band, which doesn’t have a name yet, opened the night with a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” Josh Newell/HERALD

KJ Hall

She sings, writes music, plays banjo and yodels.

Twenty-year-old Jessie Key of Glendale is living out her lifelong dream of pursuing music in Nashville.

Key is a junior at WKU but left campus after her freshman year to embrace life in Music City. She is now taking classes at WKU online and majoring in criminology.

Key has been singing her entire life but had only ever performed in school talent shows and church before she moved farther south.

Key’s family has always known this was her passion.

“I remember my mom pulling me aside and telling me that her biggest fear was that I wouldn’t pursue this,” Key said.

While making the move to Nashville was the dream, it wasn’t an easy decision, Key recalled.

“I was leaving all my friends, all my family, leaving school,” Key said. “I thought I was going to drop out at the time, which was the original plan. And even through that, my family supported me.”

Key began singing in a duet when she first moved to Nashville. But the group eventually split up, and Key was the only member who didn’t move back to Kentucky.

However, Key’s career heightened one fateful day at a music studio when she went to take a voice lesson on Music Row.

“I walked up to the studio, flung the door open and hit this poor older guy,” Key said. “I mean, I just squished him.”

Key later found out that the man she had hit with a door was Rob Galbraith, a producer and publisher in Nashville who has worked with people like Ronnie Milsap and Patti Labelle.

“I had a track I needed a female vocal on,” Galbraith said. “I needed someone with personality, and she seemed like she had it.”

Key met with Galbraith soon after their meeting. Galbraith said he knew immediately that Key was something special.

“I listened to about 15 seconds of a song she had done, stopped it, and told her that if she needed a producer, she had one,” Galbraith said. “Lord, I love her voice.”

Galbraith had no desire to work with any more female performers until he met Jessie Key.

“She has more of an upside than any female performer I’ve ever worked with,” Galbraith said.

Galbraith helped Key form a band and recently signed her to write for his publishing company and for Wrensong Publishing Corp. in Nashville.

Wrensong is owned by Ree Guyer Buchanan, who is married to Steve Buchanan, executive producer of the show “Nashville” and the man in charge at both the Ryman and the Opry, according to Galbraith.

The Buchanans came to Key’s first show performing with her band. That night Chester Thompson, legendary jazz drummer and another big fan of Jessie Key, was playing with them as well.

Ree turned to Steve and said, “Are you kidding me, she’s only 20?” Now they are some her biggest fans, Galbraith said.

“Jessie Key is on her way both literally and figuratively,” Galbraith said. “She has a lot of people who know their way around Nashville who are very connected and who are serious believers in her.”

Key has also had the opportunity to work with singer-songwriter Mike Reed, who has also worked with Galbraith and is well known for many of his songs, including “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Key and her band performed Sunday night at The Country Nashville, where Galbraith could be spotted on the keyboard. She also sang a duo with Mike Reed.

Key sang some classics, such as Etta James’s “At Last,” yodeled to “Yodeling Cowgirl” and sang four of her own songs. Key said originals are her favorite to perform because she knows them best and can interpret them however she wants to.

“I just want to sing songs that people can relate to … and that God has a hand in,” Key said.

Jeff Key, Jessie’s father, is a WKU alumnus who was recently asked to serve on the Board of Directors for the WKU Alumni Association. He said it was thrilling to see his daughter living out her dream.

“She’s been performing for a long time and at a lot of different places, but to see her getting a contract and singing in Nashville where she’s drawing in crowds, it’s just so rewarding,” Jeff Key said.

Jessie Key also encourages other aspiring singers and songwriters to follow their dreams.

“If you love it and it’s what you do when you’re alone in the car, in the shower, if you hum in lines — do it,” Key said. “Go for your dreams.”