Bobby's One Hit Wonders: Volume 2: Ray Kennedy & "What A Way To Go"
By: Bobby Peacock
In the early 1990s, country music was undergoing one of its biggest shifts ever. The arrival of the "Class of '89" (Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, etc.) heralded a new sound that presented modern, fresh takes on fiddle-and-steel traditionalism. Though the change didn't happen overnight, its impact on artists old and new is very pronounced. In due time, the poppier acts of the 80s — Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, Alabama, Eddie Rabbitt, Conway Twitty— moved aside for this newer sound. Musically, it was like a changing of the guard.
It was here in this sea of change that quite a few acts tried their hand at neo-trad, with mixed success. Brooks & Dunn, of course, led the pack among early-90s debuts, but the first couple years of the 90s also gave us many lasting names such as Tracy Lawrence, Mark Chesnutt, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood. Likewise, Vince Gill slipped away from his keyboard-heavy 80 style to a very traditional-influenced (high lonesome) sound. Granted, there were a few outliers such as the rowdy Travis Tritt, the folksy Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the smooth Billy Dean, but it was still obvious what was hottest in 1990 and 1991.
With such a huge stack of new acts, it was perhaps inevitable that a few would get lost in the shuffle. And one of those who did is the elusive Ray Kennedy. He came from a rather unexpected background — his father was a national vice president for Sears and the creator of the Discover card. Kennedy appears to have been a do-it-yourself man, building both his own guitar and his own studio. Although he got a few production, songwriting, and engineering credits for acts from Charley Pride to Stevie Nicks, he decided to jump to recording in 1990.
"What a Way to Go" made the top 40 on January 5, 1991 and peaked at number 10 seven weeks later. (Man, I wish songs still climbed that fast…) It slipped out to make way for Clint Black's future chart-topper "Loving Blind," but snuck back into the #10 position a week later before falling. Kennedy's next two singles both make the Top 40, and that was all she wrote. The corresponding album showed that same do-it-yourself approach: he produced it, engineered it, and played the vast majority of instruments. A second album, under the production of Monty Powell (who has written for Diamond Rio and Keith Urban), accounted for only the #70 "No Way Jose."
As for the song itself, "What a Way to Go" is a witty tale of a man worn down by one-night stands. According to the narrator, said man is one "who could laugh about his scars" as he jokingly lists off the many women he's met: "Shanghai'd in Vegas by a painted woman," "hogtied by a redhead in Ohio, "derailed by a dancer down in Dallas," "Tongue-tied by a teacher in Tallahassee," "French-fried by a waitress in Idaho," and "Waylaid by a widow in Wyoming." He concludes with "Women gonna be the death of me, but what a way to go." The song's quirky phrasings and alliteration help to make it much more than frivolity, as do Kennedy's honky-tonk baritone and chicken-pickin' guitar work. (Interestingly, this was not the first time this song made the rounds. Co-writer Bobby David cut it for 20th Century Records, and a very Merle Haggard-esque version by Bobby Borchers made #18 in 1977. Kennedy's version made a slight and, in my opinion, more amusing alteration to the second verse.)
Perhaps Kennedy's lack of endurance was due to Atlantic's inexperience in the country field. At that point, their only claims to country chart fame were sporadic hits from Glen Campbell and Billy Joe Royal; it wasn't until 1992 that the label got on track with the likes of Neal McCoy, Confederate Railroad, and John Michael Montgomery. On top of that, Kennedy may have been a little bit ahead of his time. It wasn't until a year or so later that witty novelties were in fashion, as seen in the likes of "Trashy Women," "My Second Home," "Bubba Shot the Jukebox," or "Money in the Bank."
Not that Ray Kennedy has suffered; he promptly moved into the field of producing, most famously for Steve Earle. Other artists for whom he has produced include Lucinda Williams and David Allan Coe. (As a post-script, the 1980 album on Columbia/CBS Records often attributed to him was actually by an unrelated artist. However, comments made by Ray on YouTube four years ago have confirmed the production credits.) In my opinion, it's always great to see an act keeping his name out there in some fashion.