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Kelly McKay: Jersey City's Loss
Is Nashville's Gain

By Gary Wien

originally published: 08/25/2018

Kelly McKay: Jersey City's Loss Is Nashville's Gain

For a decade, Kelly McGrath and her husband Frankie formed the core of Maybe Pete - a popular rock band from North Jersey whose influences ranged from The Replacements to Bruce Springsteen to The Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls.  It was a unique blend of Jersey Shore roots rock with a punk attitude.  When the band went on hiatus in 2011, Kelly began focusing on her own songwriting.  

Kelly began taking regular trips to Nashville, cultivating relationships with industry representatives and writing with other songwriters down there.  As the trips became more frequent, it made sense to think about moving down south.  Two years ago, they decided to take the plunge, but her heart and her cell number remain connected to Jersey.

“I’m not letting go of the 201,” she laughs.

When she first moved to Nashville and began reaching out to people, everyone confused her with another Kelly McGrath who happened to be a songwriter in town.  So, she decided to create a stage name for herself.  She kept the “Mc” from McGrath and took the “Kay” from her maiden name, Kennedy.  Hence the new name (Kelly McKay), which seemed to pop up from nowhere and took many Garden State fans by surprise.

Winding up in Nashville makes perfect sense when you learn that Kelly has been writing songs since she was a kid.  Even though she grew up playing guitar, she never wanted to be a solo artist or even be in a band - she just loved the idea of writing songs. Moving from writing rock and roll songs to country was a natural progression for her.

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“My roots were rock and roll,” Kelly explained.  “That’s what I grew up on.  When I was in my early twenties, I started going to songwriting workshops in New York City.  And the songs they were using as examples to pick apart and talk about the craft of songwriting were country songs.  They were Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.  I had not been exposed to any of that yet, but when I was going to those workshops and I heard those songs, I said, ‘Wow, that’s a great song’ and it made me want to hear more from them.  From there it just grew, I went to listen to all of that stuff and I got into it.”

The move was scary for the couple.  It meant leaving New Jersey, where both had lived their entire lives, and it meant taking a financial hit as they would be losing one paycheck.

“I am able to focus on music 100 percent, which I am so grateful for,” said Kelly.  “We didn’t want to come down and do it half assed.  The whole idea was to come down here and just simplify everything and live as frugally as possible and have one salary so I could dedicate all of my time to this.  I’ve been doing that for two years now and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do.  I can’t even tell you how lucky I feel to be doing this.”

Things are going well for her.  She’s found a trio of young artists that she’s written many songs with - Megan Barker, Brooklyn, and Sarah Killian (a Jersey girl who is moving to Nashville as well).  Plus last October she applied and got accepted into a staff writer program with SongTown, an online site that provides resources for songwriters.

“This means I’m working with one of the top song pluggers in town, Ronna Reeves,” explained Kelly. “She represents songwriters and pitches their songs to artists, labels and producers to secure commercial cuts. I’m excited to be working with her and I think it’s definitely helped me grow as a writer. She’s pitched my songs to a number of major label artists including Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, and Kenny Chesney.”

Kelly McKay performs regularly in Nashville, but says she has no aspirations to be a solo artist or even to release an album of her own.  Her dream is to have others record her music.  Performing in Nashville is simply a way songwriters get to network and introduce their work to artists who might be interested in collaborating with them.  Most of the time they are set up as songwriter circles where one artist performs a song and then the next and so on.  Sometimes Kelly performs on her own and sometimes her husband is on the bill as well.  But while you might be able to take the rocker out of Jersey, Frankie’s still a rocker wherever he goes.

“He doesn’t calm anything down!” laughs Kelly. “Frankie is Frankie and they love it.  It’s not really a country crowd; there’s so much more to Nashville than just country.  They have a bit of everything down here.  We played last month Nashville style (a writer in the round setup) and he’s standing up and doing ‘Guitars Got Louder’ and they love it.”

As luck would have it (or maybe you could call it fate), it didn’t take long for Frankie to find a job in Nashville.  In fact, when he gave his notice to the Guitar Center where he had worked for many years, they asked if he would be interested in transferring to the Nashville store.  He said sure.  They called the folks in Nashville and were told that the person who did the same position as him had just given his notice the day before!  

Kelly says Frankie doesn’t do much songwriting these days.  He originally started Maybe Pete because he felt he was ready to front his own band after playing guitar with The Hudson Falcons and Bruce Tunkel’s band.  The first Maybe Pete record featured songs written by Frankie.  As the years went on, Kelly began playing a much bigger role.  The band’s sound evolved and it was largely due to Kelly’s songwriting.

 She said they never worried about being in a band together, but she was worried about learning how to be in a band.  After years of playing guitar by herself, she had to learn how to play in the context of a band.  Like any other couple, she and Frankie would fight and their bandmates had to put up with it from time to time.

“For the most part it was easy being in a band together because we sort of have that couple ESP thing you get when you’re with somebody for a long time and can kind of know what the other one is thinking,” she said.  “It made being in a band together very easy.”

Kelly says Maybe Pete fans will likely see the band reunite for a show again someday. This October will be their first trip back to New Jersey since the move from Jersey City two years ago.  There won’t be nearly enough time for a reunion on this trip, which will be focused on seeing family, friends, and their favorite pizza places.  But the two have talked about the idea of a reunion, and they both believe it can and will likely happen someday.

Ironically, Kelly wasn’t even supposed to be in Maybe Pete.  It all happened by accident.  Frankie was auditioning drummers and asked her to join him since she was familiar with his music.  She played guitar during the audition and Frankie turned to her and said, “You know, this is a lot of fun.  Why don’t you just do it and be in the band?”

“It was something I had never even considered,” admitted Kelly.  “I had no band experience before - absolutely none.  I had always played and written songs, but had no band experience.  I said what the hell and I tried it and we ended up doing it for ten years and it was the best experience of my life.  It’s funny how that happened.  But, even as great as that experience was, I would still rather be sitting in the crowd at a venue and hear an artist perform one of my songs than actually be on stage as the one playing it.  I’ve always been that way.”

Kelly McKay: Jersey City's Loss Is Nashville's Gain

Photos of Kelly McKay by Joshua Estes​​​​​​​

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State Theatre Presents Diana Krall: Turn Up the Quiet Tour
(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- State Theatre New Jersey presents Diana Krall live in concert as part of her Turn Up The Quiet World Tour on Friday, October 12 at 8:00pm. Tickets range from $43-$153.50.  This concert will feature songs from Diana Krall’s stunning new album, Turn Up The Quiet, out now on Verve Records as well as a mix of some fan favorites. 
Kean Stage Presents The Manhattan Transfer
(UNION, NJ) -- Going strong after more than 45 years, Grammy Award winner The Manhattan Transfer, with tenor vocals from Kean University alumnus Alan Paul '71, will captivate Kean Stage audiences with their distinctive four-part harmonies at Enlow Recital Hall on Sunday, September 30 at 3:00pm.
3rd Annual North Jersey Indie Rock Festival
(JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- The North Jersey Indie Rock Festival returns to Jersey City on October 6. Presented by Mint 400 Records and Sniffling Indie Kids, the festival includes acts from those labels and Little Dickman Records, Rhyme and Reason Records, and State Champion Records.  The festival takes place at White Eagle Hall. Doors are at 4:00pm and the music starts at 4:30pm. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door.
The Dryden Ensemble Presents Bach Cantata Fest
(PRINCETON, NJ) -- The Dryden Ensemble will present a Bach Cantata Fest on Saturday, October 20 at 7:30pm at Trinity Episcopal Church, 6587 Upper York Road, Solebury, Pennsylvania, and on Sunday, October 21 at 3:00pm at Miller Chapel, located on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, Princeton, New Jersey. Tickets are $25 for general admission and free to students with an ID. They may be purchased at the door or online at
Steve Barton & Robert Darlington From Translator To Perform at Randy Now's Man Cave
(BORDENTOWN, NJ) -- Whether it's pure pop or moody acoustic ballads, singer/songwriter/guitarist, Steve Barton, has developed a reputation for crafting some of the most literate and poignant music in underground rock.  In addition to being a founding member of the revered punk/psychedelic band Translator, perhaps best known for the Barton-penned song "Everywhere That I'm Not", he has released several solo albums.  The seventh and latest, "Tall Tales and Alibis", is a sprawling triple album tour de force filled with Steve's brand new songs, which was released in March by Sleepless Music.   To celebrate the release of the record, Barton will be making a rare live appearance with his Translator partner Robert Darlington, this Sunday, September 23 at Randy Now's Man Cave in Bordentown (134 Farnsworth Ave) at 7:00pm.  

From the Ballpark to the Concert Stage: Bernie Williams LIVE! at The Grunin Center
Fans of sports and music are lining up outside Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts this Saturday, September 8, 2018 for a concert by four-time World Series Champion and Latin Grammy-Nominated guitarist/composer Bernie Williams and his All-Star Band!
“Here’s Lucie!” Lucie Arnaz LIVE! at the PNC Bank Arts Center
Even though the weather outside Holmdel, NJ’s PNC Bank Arts Center is cloudy with some light intermittent drizzle this Wednesday, September 12, 2018 afternoon, the venue’s stage is still shining brightly with talent thanks to a live performance by television, film, and stage actress/singer Lucie Arnaz!
Mike Aiken Talks About Aiken & Friends Fest, North Branch At RVCC
(BRANCHBURG, NJ) -- Raritan Valley Community College presents Aiken & Friends Fest, North Branch on Friday, September 21 and Saturday, September 22.  The three-day event will feature a number of different musical shows by Mike Aiken, as well as other solo artists and groups.  
Virtuoso Jazz Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty LIVE! at the Newton Theatre
It’s a warm but lovely Aug. 23, 2018 evening here in Newton, NJ. After enjoying some hand-dipped Cliff’s ice cream from the window at Hayek Market, we march up Spring Street looking forward to hearing some world-class jazz at one of the Garden State’s favorite concert venues, The Newton Theatre.
An Interview with Bernie Williams
Four-time World Series Champion and Latin Grammy-Nominated guitarist and composer Bernie Williams will perform with his All-Star Band at the Jersey Shore this Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at The Grunin Center of the Arts in Toms River, NJ!

Event calendar
Saturday, Sep 22, 2018


Asbury Park Porchfest @ Booskerdoo, Asbury Park - 12:00pm

Carl Chesna & Co. @ Hotel Tides, Asbury Park - 1:00pm

Echoes @ The Stone Pony, Asbury Park - 7:00pm

Cole Swindell @ Hard Rock Live Etess Arena at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Atlantic City, Atlantic City - 8:00pm

GRUPO NICHE @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 8:00pm

The History of Motown @ Englewood Public Library, Englewood - 7:00pm

Drake Bell @ iPlay America, Freehold - 7:00pm

Classic Stones Live feat. The Glimmer Twins @ The Levoy Theatre, Millville - 8:00pm

Opera Theatre of Montclair Presents Hansel and Gretel @ Central Presbyterian Church, Montclair - 4:00pm

Oscar D’León with Tony Vega and Los Hermanos Moreno @ Prudential Hall @ New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Newark - 8:00pm

SunDog Band at Duffy's Tavern, Paterson NJ @ Duffy's Tavern, Paterson NJ, Paterson - 9:00pm

Celtic Thunder X @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 8:00pm

Young Person's Concert @ River Dell Middle School Auditorium, River Edge - 1:00pm

Tigerman record release show for “Descend Into Savagery” @ Debonair Music Hall, Teaneck - 8:00pm

Hubby Jenkins @ Lizzie Rose Music Room, Tuckerton - 7:30pm


Souvenir @ Surflight Theatre, Beach Haven - 8:00pm

East Lynne Theater Company presents SILENT SKY @ First Presbyterian Church (Cape May), Cape May - 8:00pm

The Shuck @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 3:00pm and 7:30pm

Incorruptible @ Ritz Theatre Company, Haddon Township - 8:00pm

West End Festival of the Arts- Theatre Brut Session 2 @ West End Arts Center, Long Branch - 2:00pm

Evita @ Broadway Theatre of Pitman, Pitman - 2:00pm and 8:00pm

Seuls en Scene French Theater Festival - "Claire, Anton et Eux" @ Class of 1970 Theatre, Whitman College, Princeton - 2:00pm and 8:00pm

HUMAN ERROR by Eric Pfeffinger @ West Windsor Arts Center, Princeton Junction - 8:00pm

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 8:00pm

Assisted Living: The Musical @ Jay & Linda Grunin Center For The Arts At Ocean County College, Toms River - 2:00pm

Brick City @ Premiere Stages at Kean University, Union - 3:00pm


SWAN LAKE - THE ATLANTIC CITY BALLET @ The Strand Theater, Lakewood - 7:00pm

SOLE Defined @ Mainstage @ Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC), Rahway - 8:00pm


Monthly Saturday Writing Retreats @ Tiferet Journal, Bernardsville - 9:00am

View all events


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