I love to write stories before they’ve been finished because then I know I’m passionate about the very thing—rather than the outcome. If I fail, I’d likely not write the story out of embarrassment. If I succeed, I’d be insecure that I only cared enough to write about it because of the success. There is much to be said for the process.
So here’s my music story, before I know the outcome. Because I love what I do, despite the labels of failure or success that this fickle world will likely inscribe.
I’m the girl who should have given up—a girl who was given an impossible situation. A dream that once made my heart beat would become one I loathed and wished God would strip from my heart. I’ve known disease, rejection, isolation, desperation, depression, and near death experiences. And the enemy wanted to keep me there. But Jesus wouldn’t allow it. He redeemed me, restored me, and loved me relentlessly. So here I am, at age 30, beginning again, stepping out in faith, letting the dream come alive again, swell, and carry me wherever I want to go. This, my friends, is a story of HOPE. And—well—some pretty sweet lemonade.
They say when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. For a few years there, I couldn’t have possibly drunk as much lemonade as I had lemons. But I couldn’t store all the lemons either—there’d never be enough room. So why not make lemonade, drink what I can, store some for later, and share the rest?
Well, here’s my story of making incredibly sweet lemonade out of some pretty sour lemons.
My musical debut to the world began in the fall of 1995 when I was cast as Molly, Annie’s sidekick in the Augusta Players’ production of Annie. I was only at the auditions with my mother (who played an incredible Lily St. Regis I might add) because it was better than hanging out with my dad and brother (sorry guys) and eating Spaghettios from a can.
The director threw me on stage with many other children to sing a collective “Happy Birthday.” Somehow my soft and nervous voice pushed through the crowd, and I landed the role of the lead orphan.
I don’t even know that I liked music or musicals. It must have just been in my blood. I was uncharacteristically confident. And cute, gosh I was so cute.
I then performed in several other plays including The Wizard of Oz, A Christmas Carol, and Jesus Christ Superstar.
I spent my adolescent years singing in every church ensemble or band that I could—all the while developing a comfort in front of people and a love for the stage.
While I was largely influenced by country singers like Faith Hill and Martina McBride in my high school years, it wasn’t until college and my 9 year stint as a worship leader at a local church that was willing to push musical boundaries that I performed country music and other genres in public. I belted out songs of many varieties, including: Evanescense, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Joan Jett, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Martina McBride, Rascal Flatts, The Eagles, Lady Antebellum, Alanis Morissette, Keith Urban, and more.
It was in these years of exploring that I fell very naturally into the country genre. Everything I sang had an honest, unforced twang that was infused into every note I sang.
During these years, I dabbled in writing my own music though I never felt very confident about the results. Nonetheless, I pushed forward and began that quintessential journey towards Nashville. I built a momentum—though nothing concrete—and decided to leave my job as a High School English teacher and my security of a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree behind to pursue the uncertain journey of a musician. By my side were my incredible and supportive husband, Andrew, and my California blonde baby, McCall.
I’ll leave all the details out but sum up the first attempt by saying it wasn’t successful. Not even in the least. Because it wasn’t the right time, because I was too naïve, because, quite honestly, I wasn’t ready.
I had no idea that my story hadn’t even begun to be written yet, and that this story, the one that would begin in my late twenties, and start coming to fruition at age 30, would become my destiny.
A house that never sold, a husband on swing shift work, two more babies later, and I was pretty much washed up. Then stack on a rare, impossible diagnosis of an esophageal disease for two of my three boys, and I quickly shifted from a golf cart ridin’, autograph signin’ superstar (ok, a little bit of an exaggeration) to a worn out mom of three boys, diaper changin’ medical caretaker to three very sick children.
Our family was facing something no parent can imagine. A disease with no cure. A mountain of medical debt. So much was placed on us—just to make it through one day—that we didn’t know how to survive. We watched our children endure things that nightmares are made of, and on two occasions we almost lost our oldest, precious son, McCall. I can give no details here because, quite frankly, there aren’t enough tissues in the world to wipe up the tears that would flow.
I felt I had no choice but to pour myself into the life of being the mom of chronically ill children. It may not have been the right choice, but it’s the decision I made. My each and every day consisted of normal mommy stuff, but was also filled with doctors’ visits, and medical plans, and preparing for hospitalizations, and caring for the boys while they were in the hospital, and helping them recover from the hospital, and medical travel, and more.
I did this because I felt like God wanted me to. But like most moms who walk this journey, I lost myself in it. It was inevitable. It really was. Ultimately I stepped away from all things McKenna, including music. I took an indefinite hiatus from music because it was too much to bear. No radio. No singing in the shower. No writing. No harmonizing. I couldn’t bear facing the one thing that gave me breath but didn’t have the courage or strength to do. Melodies became my enemy and reminded me of what I was not.
But then something unexpected happened—something that would end my musical silence and inspire me to live the only physical life I’ll get with passion, zest, and joy. In March of 2014, my funny and passionate 27 year old cousin ended his life here on earth. I don’t even know if that’s the proper way to say it, but everything else sounds too cliché. And he wasn’t a cliché.
Our family was fortunate to celebrate his beautiful life in Nashville, TN with family and friends. And this, my friends, changed my life. We heard story after story about his vivacious life and what an inspiration he was. I, too, have heard some of these very words spoken about me, and it occurred to me…that we’re all just one slippery slope away from doing something, anything, we never thought we’d do.
I didn’t get to hang out with my cousin as much as I’d liked to in recent years (The Masters golf tournament was our yearly rendezvous), but yet, in this moment, surrounded by 3,000 friends, family, and important Nashville people, I felt close to him. I felt as if he was tapping my on the shoulder—flashing that contagious and partly mischievous smile saying, “It’s only one life, McKenna. Go live it.”
While in Nashville, every family member I had a conversation with asked me the same exact question…. “So McKenna, are you still singing?” I felt embarrassed by my answer—and saw a pattern that defined me. I was known as the singer, the musician. And, yet, I had to mumble “No” to answer each repetitive question.
Well what WAS I doing with myself these days? In my own brain, I didn’t have the courage to believe that my life was meant for more than changing diapers and caring for chronically ill children…
Did the Lord have more in store for my life? Could my role as mother and musician coexist? I had no clue.
I didn’t share my experiences with anyone—and the only evidence of the encounter was tucked away in my memory. I was changed for sure—but I had no idea what to do with this newfound epiphany. Was I supposed to simply find joy in what I was already doing? Or rekindle my former love for music?
Fast forward—barely a week—where my husband and I found ourselves at Wild Wings Café, supporting our friend Justin as he played drums with a band. Enter Phillip Lee. The man with a soul and passion for his craft that is contagious.
Andrew and I both were mesmerized by his vocals…and again, I felt that voice inside of me…It was quiet, but it was clear. It said, “McKenna, you will sing again, and you will sing with this person right here.” Thanks for the nudge, God.
I don’t even know why Phillip agreed to take this journey with me. He’s not your typical country artist. In fact, our duo almost broke up many times before it started. “White noise,” as we call it, was all around us, affecting the whole process.
But—keeping our eyes on the goal, on the unified dream we had, proved too much for that white noise.
We met in April 2014, sang together for the first time on May 30, began writing in June, performed together in July, had a sold out debut concert in August, recorded 5 acoustic original tracks by September, and had surreal meeting with a record label in Nashville in October.
So here we are in November, waiting to see what’s next. We’ve done more in these six short months than I ever dreamed about in my previous 29 years.
I’m still the mom with chronically ill children. My duties are still the same. But I’m no longer a slave to the disease.
I don’t just sing to sing. I don’t write just to write. I create art because I have to. To empty myself of these words is to fill my soul back up. Even if the words are never read or the songs are never heard, I’d still have to do it. And this—what I spent years trying to uncover and sometimes suppress—is what I call passion. I thank God that He intervened on behalf of my soul and saved me from a lifetime of resentment and bitterness, replacing it with a life full of purpose and fulfillment. But I equally credit myself—for listening, for taking a chance, for not focusing on the outcome more than the process.
And it’s a choice we all have. To rush through life. To live halfway. To feel empty. But that’s not living the abundant life that Jesus said He came for. Living life to the full probably means more heartbreak, more judgment, more fear. But living a life of purpose—following God’s plan for your life—is well worth the risk. For some, it’s loving on a classroom full of crazy three year olds. For others, it’s giving a customer a smile. For me, it’s that feeling of heels on a stage and the grip on the microphone. It’s touching one life. It’s a moment outside of reality. It’s pointing people towards something greater.
Whatever it is, we push through those lemons, because what will result on the other side is something so incredibly sweet.
Music is my lemonade. And boy, do I like lemonade.
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