Writer Of The Week: Gordon Kennedy
(Kennedy, right, with Ricky Skaggs)
Here’s the stats on Gordon Kennedy. The son of renowned guitarist Jerry Glenn Kennedy and singer Linda Brannon, he’s written or co-written hits for Eric Clapton (“Change The World”), Garth Brooks, and Bonnie Raitt, to name a few. He’s also worked as a producer, teaming with Ricky Skaggs on the bluegrass icon’s inspired 2010 album Mosaic, which Kennedy co-wrote all the tracks for. We picked Kennedy’s brain for as much info as we could squeeze out of him. Read on.
When did you first start writing songs? How long before you thought they were good?
I know I wrote my first song in the auditorium where I went to high school, Brentwood Academy. It was my senior year. Dann Huff was a close friend and did so much to push me as a musician. As I was realizing that I would pursue music forever, I wrote my first song. I absolutely do not recall the title or how it went! Probably, best for the world that I don’t…. After high school, I continued writing songs, some with Larry Stewart of Restless Heart fame. I wrote songs for the group WhiteHeart while I was a member. I was still definitely honing my skills during this time. Plenty of tunes no one cut that I hope are lost, but some good songs too.
I know when it started to click for me. It was when I started co-writing with my friend Wayne Kirkpatrick. That was around 1991. I believe it was a true “Iron sharpening iron” working relationship. I started learning that songwriting was more than just having something to say or play. I was beginning to learn how to say it in a way someone else would care to hear it.
How did growing up in a musical home influence the musician you are today?
I can’t imagine life without music. I’m one of three sons of a guitar pickin’, record producing father, Jerry, and a singing mom, Linda. While many families years ago might have sat around the radio for their favorite radio show, or today’s family around the TV for their favorite reality show, sitcom, or drama, I remember that the only time our entire family would consistently get together was listening to whatever tapes my father had brought home from the session that day.
Maybe the freshest was Roger Miller or Jerry Lee Lewis. Perhaps The Statler Brothers as Lester Roadhog Moran and his Cadillac Cowboys! Sometimes it was my mom’s singles (Linda Brannon) she did on Epic. Because my father was running the Mercury Records office of Nashville, we would get a box about once every few months of all of the product released on the label. Country, pop, rock, urban…. My brothers Bryan and Shelby and I would tear into the box and pass ‘em out between us. I’ll take BTO, Rush! – I want Ohio Players!, Gimme Johnny Rodriguez! You should have heard the train wreck of sound that was the hallway to our three bedrooms!
You blend this steady diet of diverse music, a Meet The Beatles album my dad gave me when I was about five, and the fact that the basement was full of my dad’s guitars, an upright piano (where I learned to play my first tune “Stand By Me” when I was seven), and a jukebox, and you got a kid who’d spin those 45′s and place his head on the floor by the jukebox dreaming that it was him making those sounds! We just grew up immersed in it. Brothers Bryan and Shelby have both enjoyed success as songwriters writing for artists such as Garth, Reba, and Ray Charles….
Tell us a bit about working on the Mosaic album with Ricky Skaggs.
The “Mosaic” project is the most powerful one I’ve ever been a part of. My brother Bryan heard it when it was about eight songs old. At that point he said “this is a lifetime record for you!” He’s right. Ricky feels the same way. Every road we’ve ever been on musically our whole lives, has led to this. But, it’s God’s record. We believe we were hearing the songs of heaven on this. Ricky is loaded up with talent but, he will tell you that he had to leave his comfort zone to do this record. He could have just left it in cruise control and not rocked his boat. But, he got called out of the boat.
Ricky heard a CD I made for him containing about 12 or 13 songs on it. The first three tunes were songs that in my mind I had slated for a sequel to an album I had done in the mid ’90s called Dogs Of Peace. The rest of the tunes were songs I thought Ricky could persuade into more of a bluegrass thing if he liked the song enough. He picked the first 3 much to my surprise. He told me he wanted to do them like the demos and would require my help to produce the record! At that point, I entered into a season of life where God would choose to make Himself obvious to me, not veiled in mystery, no spiritual scavenger hunt kind of thing…. just obvious.
Something would happen everyday to remind us of this. Little things like, Ricky borrowing an amp of mine to reproduce a sound I had used on the demo. He fell in love with this old amp, a Fender Vibrolux from 1962. He said he wished to find one for himself. I tried to explain how rare they were but, would search the world for one. Fender only made them for two years! One hour later, Steve Wariner called me to say hi and oh by the way, his son was selling a 1962 Fender Vibrolux amp! We’d just laugh at these little “God winks.”
We drove five hours to the home of George Beverly Shea to record him for the record. George has served with Billy Graham for decades and is a mere 101 years old now. He sang a verse of “I’d Rather Have Jesus” then we had him speak a verse. Before we finished, we asked if he’d speak the words “all rise” as if he were the bailiff in a court. He did. When we got home and went into mastering the record, we found that he’d spoken those two words in the exact tuning of the two piano notes where we placed him – without our playing him the song or setting out to do this! Again, things like this became routine. We were just the messengers on Mosaic…. You know, God told Noah to build an ark, told him exactly how to build it. Then, He made it rain. We, although certainly on a smaller scale, are seeing similar fruit. Only this time, the water is coming from underneath the eyes. Mine included.
Does being a songwriter make you a better producer?
Not automatically. I’m more of a reluctant producer really. I’ve wound up producing because of my songwriting. Certainly in the case of both the Frampton and Skaggs projects, I was a writer first. Now, once in the control room, I believe it’s possible as a songwriter – turned – producer on a particular project, to have a good head start on what should be happening with the songs in the recording process. There have been plenty of my songs that had I produced them, wouldn’t have turned out as well. Sometimes we songwriters can be so close to the tune, that we would fail to take a great cue from another creative mind.
Tell us about how “Change The World” got written. How was it received among Clapton fans and music lovers in general?
“Change The World” was a song written over the course of a year by Tommy Sims, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and myself. On a recording session in Quad Studios in Nashville, in the early ’90s, Wayne and I were recording some demos in an attempt to do the “artist” thing. We recorded four songs that day, three of which wound up on Garth’s Chris Gaines CD (this would happen several years later).
During that session, Tommy was there playing bass and played us the nugget of an idea he had, wondering if it might be something that would work for the sound we were doing. He had the title and a chord progression and melody direction going. Wayne would ask him some months later for a tape of the idea so he could work on it. He wrote the lyrics to the chorus and all but one line of the second verse. Then, it went dormant again for a time before I asked Wayne about its progress. He gave me what he’d done on it. I finished writing the music, went to Columbus, Ohio and laid down a demo track with Tommy. He was there working on a church choir album. On the way home, I listened to a tape of the track and dictated lyrics into another little handheld recorder (I still have the micro-cassette!) I wrote the lyrics to the first verse and the missing line in the second verse. When I got home, I went into the studio and did a guitar and all of the vocals for a finished demo, the one Clapton heard later…
None of the three of us were together when we wrote what we each wrote on the song. Babyface produced a wonderful record on Clapton. It won three Grammys. Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year, and Pop Male Vocal Performance. It stayed in the Top 20 Billboard AC chart for a record 81 weeks, number 1 for 13 of those weeks.
What was it like working with Garth Brooks?
Working with Garth was awesome! We were a little skeptical when he announced to us his intention to sing “Lost In You.” But, when Wayne and I met him at the studio to do that first vocal, our jaws hit the floor! I’d never heard Garth sing like that. He was so good in this soft R&B style of vocal, that we wondered who the real Garth was! Then, of course, we traveled with him doing about a dozen TV things. One story you won’t hear anywhere else…. We had flown to LA to do one of the TV shows. We didn’t get on the plane to return home until maybe 1:30 or 2 in the morning. Private plane, serve yourself pizza from the microwave, sandwiches and so on….no flight attendants. After takeoff, GB goes around to each person and asks what they’d like to eat. He takes everyone’s order, serves each, and when everyone is taken care of, he lies down in the aisle and goes to sleep.
As far as the record we did with him, the Chris Gaines one, I’ve always noticed that everyone who heard it liked it, everyone else didn’t. That’s one hard working talented guy there! I love him. He had me come play in his band for the nine sold out shows in K.C. in 2007, followed by five shows in LA in 2008. My ears are still ringing, and that’s from the crowd.
What’s a recent song you really want people to hear, and why?
Well, I really want people to hear this Mosaic CD The whole thing! I hear people saying “you gotta listen to it from start to finish.” Some have heard it as a concept record. I just think it is a powerful record. It confronts the listener, as it does the singer, in such a gentle way. My good friend, Doug Howard, described it as an evergreen, a record that will outlive us. I know a man in Texas who purchased a box of 100 cd’s just because he feels people need to hear it. I feel the same way he does!
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of?
“Return To Sender” is freshest on my mind. I was in Washington D.C. with my friend Tommy Sims in the Fall of 2009. We were discussing Elvis songs my dad had played on. I said “he played on “Good Luck Charm.” Tommy said “I thought he played on ‘Return To Sender.’” I answered “no, … but I want that on my tombstone!” We laughed. When I got back home I thought to myself, you know, I think I want that on my tombstone! I got in touch with Ricky and told him I had what maybe should be the last song on his record. He agreed. It’s not often you can write the closing song for a Ricky Skaggs record and your epitaph at the same time.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
It depends on the song I suppose. You know it when you’re writing whether a word can work or not. I produced a record on a singer/songwriter Pierce Pettis, who has a song called “Jim Brown.” In it, he uses the phrase “shock absorbers!” Now this is a mid-tempo, broken heart song. It worked beautifully though. There are no rules. Sometimes strange words just sound great. Check out “I Am The Walrus.”
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
I gravitate towards a guitar the way some people have to constantly be picking up their phone to text or something. Within minutes, I’m reaching for an mp3 recorder to put an idea down. A riff or chord progression. It’s like a faucet I can’t shut off and they pile up over time. I will also keep a running list of titles and lyric ideas on a laptop. On days where I purpose to write, it usually begins with music and melody first. More than likely, there’s a music idea that I can’t get out of my head, something that keeps surfacing every time I grab a guitar. When it involves a co-writer, it seems to work best when we just converse about the idea for awhile before attempting to wrestle it into a song. And, you kind of have to always be “writing”, antennae up, recorder handy… remember Washington D.C?
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Sometime stream of conscience is fun and can be responsible for some great feeling lyrics. Most of the time, and it’s probably from growing up in Nashville, the lyrics have gone through a pretty exhaustive scrutinization. That’s something I developed working with Wayne and it’s a good thing. We’ve noticed over the years how much we play with words, not only in songs but, also in our humor and everyday conversations.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
I think my friend, singer-songwriter Ben Cooper, is still yet to be discovered. Very talented, and a top notch human too, if you like top notch humans…. He wrote eight songs with me for the Mosaic record.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
When I heard Sting sing “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You”, I was jealous for an entire genre of music. I think that idea could have been one of the greatest gospel songs ever. So, it merely remains one of the greatest songs. My favorite though, Paul McCartney “Maybe I’m Amazed.”