A burgeoning musical act has ties to Troy University.
Singing and songwriting duo Cori & Kelly, consisting of Cori Wood and 2007 TROY graduate Kelly Efstathiou, hit No. 1 on the HLE Christian Country Countown and the Power Source Christian Country top 100 charts in 2018 with their hit single “Take Me Back to Church.”
Efstathiou graduated with a graphic design major, but her time in the then-new music industry program planted the seeds for a music career she never saw coming despite her lifelong interest.
“I always knew I loved music, and I was a majorette and played flute in the band,” she said. “One of the most important classes I took was songwriting with Robert W. Smith. I learned some very valuable lessons in songwriting and the overall process of recording songs.”
Her time studying under Smith, TROY’s music industry program coordinator, taught Efstathiou the ins and outs of the music business years before she tried her hand at it professionally.
“One of the biggest impacts was songwriting,” she said. “(Music industry program coordinator) Robert W. Smith forced us to think outside the box and not just write to ourselves. For instance, I wrote a song and said, ‘I want to sing it myself,’ and he said, ‘No, I want you to write it and give it to someone else and let them record it.’ It gave me an outsider’s look so that I didn’t have a one-track mind.”
Smith fondly recalls Efstathiou’s talent and work ethic.
“Kelly was a very successful music industry student in the early years of our program,” he said. “I remember her so well in that first songwriting class that I taught here at Troy University. It was clear to me then that her talent and gift for songwriting would make an impact in our world.”
Her impact can still be felt in the program today, in fact.
“In addition to being a gifted songwriter and vocalist, she was a founding member of our Ilium Records operation,” Smith said. “She created the Ilium Records logo and entire branding package that is still in use to this day. We are extremely proud of her success and look forward to the many great things to come in her career.”
Efstathiou’s husband, Nick, also graduated from TROY and played in the Sound of the South.
After leaving TROY, Efstathiou pursued a career in graphic design, but ended up working in a variety of fields.
“I got a job designing t-shirts at a screen printing company, but I knew I didn’t want to do that forever,” she said. “I had several jobs after and picked up several skills — web development, social media and marketing, to name a few.”
Around that time, she started singing at Forest Park United Methodist Church in Panama City, Florida, where she met Wood.
“We joined praise band at the same time and instantly became friends,” Efstathiou said. “A few years later, we were asked to lead worship at a women’s retreat.”
At that retreat, around 2014, the two women decided their singing had developed to such a degree that they should form a group, initially called We Anointed.
“We were determined to sing contemporary Christian music,” Efstathiou said. “Then we started dabbling in songwriting, and it came out country, which was not what we wanted at all. Everything we wrote just had a country sound. We developed a love of Christian or inspirational country, and we quickly knew that was our sweet spot.”
Eventually changing their name to Cori & Kelly in order to reach a wider audience, the friends soon found themselves working with and learning from industry veterans such as singer Ben Calhoun of contemporary Christian band Citizen Way and Nashville-based producer Brent Rader.
The duo released “Take Me Back to Church” as its debut single in May 2018, quickly taking over the charts and making a mark. An EP release followed in November.
“We love singing together, that is our passion,” said Efstathiou, who teaches marketing and TV production at Bay High School in Panama City. “I’ve been trying to think of ways to make this a fulltime thing. We’ll keep trucking along, making connections and putting ourselves out there. Christian country has been around for a while, but it’s largely an unknown genre. It hasn’t had the opportunity to progress, and our vision is to make Christian country a well-known genre like contemporary Christian is.”
She also envisions expanding beyond genre constraints.
“We want to pitch our songs to mainstream country as well,” she said. “Once you label yourself as one genre, you kind of box yourself in.”