The state of Oklahoma is rich with musical heritage, particularly in the field of country. Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, and Vince Gill are but a few of the big names that the state has produced through the years. But the lesser-known names should not be ignored, either — after all, even the artists who only score one big hit still have at least something to their name. One such example is Kellie Coffey.
Like the aforementioned Toby Keith, Kellie Coffey hailed from Moore, Oklahoma. She cut her teeth on various musicals that she performed at while in college, and sang demos in California. Some of her early music was used by the Walt Disney company, and on the show Walker, Texas Ranger, and she even sang backing vocals for Barbra Streisand at a concert in Vegas. By 2001, Coffey had finally made her way back to Nashville, with a record deal for BNA.
Coffey's debut was a slow but steady one. Her lead single, "When You Lie Next to Me," was shipped in December 2001, but did not peak on the charts until July 2002. Much later, the song achieved crossover success on the AC charts, where it slowly (when does a song not climb slowly on that chart?) ascended to #14. Now, the fact that a female country singer was crossing over to AC was not unheard of at the time. Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina, and LeAnn Rimes had all done so multiple times, and there were even a few outliers, such as Lee Ann Womack's (insanely overrated) "I Hope You Dance." However, by 2002, the crossover mania had slowly begun to die down, most notably when Faith Hill's Cry album later in the year completely alienated her from country radio, but scored her a #1 AC hit.
And on its surface, "When You Lie Next to Me" had very little to do with country: full vocals, lush string-laden production (from Dann Huff, who was also helming Faith's crossovers a couple years prior), and even the obligatory key change in the final chorus. I admit that when this song first came out, Kellie's breathy vocal style drove me absolutely nuts, but comparing it to its contemporaries, the difference is obvious. Kellie was a softer, slightly husky singer, less reliant on belting than the aforementioned Faith and Martina, but less spunky and rough-edged than Jo Dee. Sure, one could argue that it was "country in name only," but really — what was "country" about some of the songs from even two or three years prior, such as Lonestar's power ballad "Amazed"? Overall, "When You Lie Next to Me" was just a rock-solid, passionate love ballad, with an easily discernible flavor in a very musically bland time, and easily sufficient merit to warrant its crossover success.
Coffey's followup wasn't a bad choice, either. Toning down the breathiness a bit, she took on a sturdy enough Brett James co-write, "At the End of the Day." Its guitar-heavy production added a bit more of an edge, and its lyrics — while on the surface, largely identical to McBride's "Blessed," also from James's pen — still offered a solid enough take on the simple joys of everyday life. The song reached a respectable enough #18, but followup "Whatever It Takes" fell four spaces short of Top 40.
Cue the second album. Leading it off was "Texas Plates," perhaps her best BNA single. A punchy up-tempo, the song told a story of a bunch of young, boy-crazy Oklahoma girls chasing after those boys with Texas license plates on their cars. A cute enough hook, a relatable image, and a more varied style (both production-wise and vocal-wise) than its predecessors should've turned the song into an instant hit. But in 2003, it seemed that simply being a female was poison to radio playlists; indeed, in all of 2003, no solo female act hit #1 the entire year! This lack of females on the charts may have been a factor of Faith Hill's aforementioned alienation of country radio and/or the sudden drop of the Dixie Chicks after their feud with Toby Keith and subsequent comments about then-President George W. Bush. In any event, "Texas Plates" at least made #24, which should've been good enough to put out the second album, A Little More Me. Instead, BNA stalled the album and chose to rescue it with a cover of Luther Vandross' oft-recorded "Dance with My Father." Covers are always a risky move for unfamiliar artists, so of course, that cover went nowhere, and BNA dropped Kellie.
She remained inactive until 2007, when she put out the independent Walk On album. The only single from it was "I Would Die for That," an autobiographical song about Kellie's own struggles with infertility. While such a topic is probably not all that identifiable for the average listener, I still have to applaud her for tackling such a serious issue — one that I don't think I've ever seen put into song before — so masterfully. An EP titled Why I'm Alive followed in 2009, which apparently did not produce any singles. "Texas Plates" is also available in rerecorded form on iTunes. (The original version is really, really hard to find, in case you're wondering.)
Kellie Coffey seems like she really could've taken off, even with the "pop diva" brand of female country slowly slipping away by the time she finally entered the Top 10. The momentum of her first big hit should've gotten her further than it did. Maybe "At the End of the Day" was just a bit too close to "Blessed." Maybe BNA was too quick to drop her after barely even trying to get A Little More Me out. On the other hand, the move to self-releasing her material allowed her the liberty to put out the stunning "I Would Die for That," a song that I doubt any major label would touch with a 10-foot-pole because it' "too risky" (and to that I say, bologna). Furthermore, the increasing ease of digital distribution allows nearly any artist to maintain a steady stream of exposure, and while Coffey's post-BNA output has been sporadic at best, at least she is keeping her voice heard. And, at the end of the day (no pun intended), she definitely has a voice worth hearing.