Country Songwriter, Label Founder Ray Pennington Dies In House Fire

A house fire on Wednesday (Oct. 7) has claimed the life of country-music veteran Ray Pennington, 86.

The fire occurred in Sumner County, on the outskirts of Hendersonville on New Hope Road. Officials described it as the community’s largest conflagration in recent memory.

Pennington was a songwriter, record producer, instrumentalist, label executive and singer. He is perhaps best known as the writer of the chart-topping Waylon Jennings 1974 classic “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” and as a founder of Step One Records in 1984.

Born Ramon Pennington on Dec. 22, 1933, he was a native of Clay County, Kentucky. Following early experience performing in an Ohio western-swing band, he signed with King Records in Cincinnati. His debut single was 1958’s “Three Hearts in a Tangle.”

He moved into record producing at King, working with Hawkshaw Hawkins, The Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley and others. In 1961, Roy Drusky gave Pennington his first songwriting success by taking “Three Hearts in a Tangle” to No. 2 on the country charts.

Pennington relocated to Nashville in 1964. Kenny Price had back-to-back top-10 country hits in 1966-67 with Pennington’s songs “Walking on New Grass” and “Happy Tracks.” Price also released nine other singles of Pennington songs, including four top-40 successes.

The songwriter’s own career on the popularity charts began when he signed with Capitol Records in 1966. He first cracked the top-40 on the country hit parade with “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” in 1967. Subsequent stints on the Monument and MRC labels resulted in a total of nine charted titles in the 1960s and 1970s.

His debut LP appeared on Monument in 1970. He wrote half of the songs on Ray Pennington Sings for the Other Woman, which was produced by Fred Foster.

Pennington went to work for RCA Records in 1971. He produced records for the label’s Norma Jean, Willie Nelson and Billy Walker, among others. He co-wrote Walker’s top-20 RCA hit “Don’t Stop in My World” of 1976, as well as other songs the star recorded.

Pennington and Jerry McBee formed the duo Bluestone, which made the charts in 1980 with “Haven’t I Loved You Somewhere Before” on Dimension Records. He co-wrote “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown,” which became a No. 1 hit for Ricky Skaggs in early 1984.

Later that year, Pennington became a co-founder of the Step One label, whose first signing was superstar Ray Price. Produced by Pennington, Price charted 12 times with Step One singles during the next five years.

The label’s Clinton Gregory continued its success into the 1990s with a string of chart successes, including “(If it Weren’t for Country Music) I’d Go Crazy” (1991) and “Play Ruby Play” (1992). He was also produced by Pennington.

The rest of Step One’s roster featured Faron Young, Charlie McCoy, Western Flyer, The Kendalls, Kitty Wells, Cal Smith, Celinda Pink, Terry McMillan, Hank Thompson, The Geezinslaws and label co-founder Curtis Potter.

Gene Watson’s CDs for Step One were Uncharted Mind (1993), The Good Ole Days (1996), Jesus Is All I Need (1997) and A Way to Survive (1997). Ray Pennington produced all of them.

Pennington, himself, recorded for Step One. He issued Memories (1984) and Dear Lord, I’ve Changed (1988) as LPs for the company.

During this same time period, he formed The Swing Shift Band with steel guitarist Buddy Emmons. The group issued Swingin’ as a double-LP of oldies on Step One in 1984. This was followed by In the Mood for Swingin’ (1986), Swing & Other Things (1988), Swingin’ Our Way (1990) Swingin’ By Request (1992), It’s All In the Swing (1995) and Goin’ Out Swingin’ (1997). The group charted on the label with the single “(Turn Me Loose and) Let Me Swing” in 1988.

Step One Records closed in 1998. Pennington produced artists on a variety of independent labels thereafter.

During his long career, Ray Pennington’s songs were recorded by such Country Music Hall of Fame members as Price, Skaggs, Jennings, The Browns, Grandpa Jones, Ferlin Husky, George Morgan, Jean Shepard, Mel Tillis and Porter Wagoner. They have also been sung by Eric Church, Leona Williams, James Brown, Johnny Bush, Montgomery Gentry, Johnny Paycheck, Wanda Jackson, The Wilburn Brothers, Lorrie Morgan, Etta James, Jim & Jesse, Dave Dudley and Jack Greene, among many others.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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