Gordon Kennedy (musician)
In addition to his work with Clapton, Kennedy has had his songs cut by musical greats, including Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Bruce Hornsby, Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Peter Frampton, George Strait, Martina McBride, Joan Osborne, Wynonna, Jerry Reed and, most recently, bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs.
Some of his most notable cuts include his Bonnie Raitt singles, “I Can’t Help You Now” and “I Will Not Be Broken,” his Garth Brooks single, “You Move Me,” which reached No. 2 on the country charts, and his Alison Krauss cut, “Maybe.”
Kennedy is one of those rare talents for whom raw skill and opportunity flawlessly aligned. The son of music industry A-Team heavy hitter Jerry Kennedy and singer Linda Brannon, he grew up steeped in the sounds of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Tammy Wynette, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Statler Brothers, not only because his parents were spinning their records but because his dad was either producing them or playing guitar on their albums.
A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Kennedy moved to Nashville in 1961, when he was still a baby and his hopeful parents were trying their hands in the industry, spurned on by Mercury exec and family friend Shelby Singleton. The young family stayed in Nashville and became a pillar in the development of the industry over the next few decades.
As Kennedy was growing up, his father spent 16 years running Smash Records, the country subsidiary of Mercury Records. He played on albums for the likes of Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr, produced 13-time Grammy Award-winner Roger Miller and won four Grammys himself.
High school and college
An alumnus of Brentwood Academy and Belmont University, Kennedy was an all-around athlete in high school, selected the most athletic student his senior year. He spent his high school years running track, playing basketball, winning the regional high jump championship with a jump of 6’6” and starring on BA’s first state championship football team.
A dedicated musician even then, he completed his first master recording session after his junior year of high school, lending a solo to Johnny Rodriguez’ song “Run Like A Thief” and performing a twin guitar part with his father on “Remember Me.”
While still attending Belmont, he landed a gig playing guitar on several of Reba McEntire’s projects, including her first top 5 single, “Today All Over Again” and her first No.1, “Can’t Even Get the Blues.” Catapulted into the realm of top professionals when he was still a student, Kennedy has never slowed in his ability to create and collaborate on innovative, new music.
Contemporary Christian music
In 1984, just a couple years out of college, Kennedy joined the contemporary Christian group WhiteHeart when his high school friend, now renowned producer Dann Huff, left the group and recommended him to fill the spot. Kennedy toured for six years with WhiteHeart, during which time the band released one of his favorite collaborations to date, the 1989 album Freedom. He left WhiteHeart in 1990 to get off the road and pursue session work.
The years that immediately followed were integral in shaping Kennedy’s life and career. He spent a few years scraping by and establishing himself as a session guitarist, primarily for contemporary Christian artists like Amy Grant, Twila Paris, Susan Ashton, PFR and Steven Curtis Chapman. At the same time, home life drastically changed for him and his wife with the purchase of their first home and the birth of their two children.
Kennedy began working with renowned songwriters/producers Brown Bannister and Wayne Kirkpatrick. He and Kirkpatrick started writing in pursuit of an artist deal together, and though the deal never materialized, the two wrote three cuts for country megastar Garth Brooks’ alter-ego album, The Life of Chris Gaines. Kennedy wrote 10 songs on that album, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart.
"Change the World"
It was also during this time that “Change the World” was born, though it sat on a shelf from 1992 until 1995 when it was picked up by Wynonna and then made an international hit by Clapton through the release of the film Phenomenon in the summer of 1996.
In 1994, Kennedy’s song “That Kind of Love,” picked up by the Christian group PFR, was awarded CHR Song of the Year. In 1995, before “Change the World” shot out of obscurity, Kennedy teamed up with songwriter/producer Jimmie Lee Sloas to release a project under the name Dogs of Peace. The album, Speak, was extremely well received in the industry and became another of Kennedy’s most favored collaborations.
After the 1996 burst of “Change the World,” the 81 straight weeks it spent in the top 20 on Billboard’s AC chart, the 13 weeks it spent at No.1, the Grammy nominations, the 1997 Grammy Award and the subsequent affirmation of his songwriting dexterity, Kennedy turned his focus from session playing to writing full time. In 1997, he was inducted into Louisiana’s Southern Songwriters Guild Hall of Fame.
Since then, his every career move has been made through the paradigm of songwriting, though he has still done session work for artists like Faith Hill, SHeDAISY, Billy Ray Cyrus, Wynonna, Peter Frampton, Michael McDonald, Jewel, Kenny Loggins and Little Big Town, primarily through his connections to Huff and Kirkpatrick, both longtime friends and now celebrated producers.
Kennedy has continued to get cuts with artists within and beyond Nashville. Most recently, he teamed up with bluegrass luminary Ricky Skaggs for Skaggs’ critically acclaimed 2010 album Mosaic. Producing the album in tandem with Skaggs and writing or co-writing every song, in addition to singing harmonies and playing guitar, Kennedy brought his Beatles-influenced rock sound to this record that is such a marked deviation from Skaggs’ traditional, mandolin-driven, Kentucky Thunder style.
The album includes guest appearances by a cast of varied talents, including Skaggs’ daughter Molly, George Beverly Shea singing his Billy Graham Crusade spiritual “I’d Rather Have Jesus” and English multi-instrumentalist Peter Frampton shredding on a guitar solo in “My Cup Runneth Over” (Kennedy won a 2007 Grammy for producing Frampton’s Fingerprints album).
Described on NPR as a collection of songs that “frequently capture the artistic paradox of good gospel music: expressing humble piety through bold, passionate performances,” the multi Grammy-nominated album, Mosaic, marked a camaraderie between Skaggs and Kennedy that has yet to see an end.
Talking about Kennedy’s deep involvement with the record, Skaggs said, “I fell in love with his songwriting. I fell in love with the demos that he had done. He has so many people that respect him for his music ... He’s a wonderful Christian who lives it in his heart, and he’s brought such a great thing to this project.”
Kennedy has seen his music placed in the films Phenomenon (1996), Tin Cup (1996), For the Love of the Game (1999), Almost Famous (2000), Where the Heart Is (2000), The Banger Sisters (2002) and The Fox and the Hound 2 (2006). He is an acclaimed songwriter with his distinct fingerprint evident on multiple genres of music, from rock ‘n’ roll to pop, gospel, country and others.
Governance and advisory roles
Kennedy has served on the Board of Governors for the Nashville Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) for 10 years and currently serves on the Belmont University Advisory Board. He also gave his time on the Brentwood Academy Board of Trustees from 2006 until 2010.
While his list of accolades runs longer than a Louisiana summer, Kennedy always points to his family when asked how and why he got into music when he did. The oldest of the three Kennedy boys, he’s not the only one who followed in his parents’ footsteps. Both his brothers, Shelby and Bryan, have written No. 1 hits as well, for Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks respectively, each establishing himself in the industry through his own talents and pursuits.
In a letter to his three boys dated 1 March 2011, Gordon’s father, Jerry Kennedy, wrote: “Our family has kind of an anniversary today. Fifty years ago this morning, your mom, Gordon and I left Shreveport to move here to Nashville. What little furniture we owned left the day before ... Our thinking was that we would come up, spend a few weeks, or at the most, a couple of months, and then move back home to Shreveport ... Well, as you all know, the move became permanent at some point, and here it is fifty years later.”
As Gordon Kennedy looks back on this letter, he can be thankful his young parents pinched pennies to get by, taking a risk on a new and unfamiliar city. And at the same time, the rest of us can pinch ourselves to awaken to the reality that the music industry would have been entirely different if they hadn’t.