If you were to rank every song to ever reach the Billboard charts, based solely on the number of people named “Ray” who are mentioned in the lyrics, it seems virtually certain that the song at number one, by a considerable distance, would be 1998’s “Are You Jimmy Ray?”, performed by—appropriately enough—Jimmy Ray. But if you were to then rank all those Billboard-charting songs based on their lasting cultural relevance, that same song would be damn near the bottom, rubbing shoulders with the likes of its near-contemporary “The Mummers’ Dance.” But when Jimmy Ray peaked at No. 13 in 1998, it clearly touched some type of chord with the American public. It certainly did with me.
I first saw the video on my roommate’s tiny TV during my freshman year of college. The year before, a few friends and I had discovered our mutual appreciation for the song “Stray Cat Strut.” If we were walking somewhere together, occasionally one of us would suddenly start singing the “Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh” intro, and we would each join in with either the lyrics or a vocal rendition of the guitar accompaniment, and would begin to, well, strut. We felt like pretty cool cats ourselves, despite and because of knowing that we were alone in that assessment. My senior year of high school had been the first time in my life where I felt secure about my social life, confident that I was a valued part of a few different groups of friends, with whom I shared interests, outlooks, and inside jokes. But in college, that feeling had been shattered completely, and wouldn’t return for a long, long time.
So when another rockabilly-tinged song with a novelty title came along, it immediately caught my attention. It certainly helped that the song had an earworm of a hook, and that I was watching an absurd amount of MTV that year out of a lack of better ideas for how to spend my time. But what really drew me in is a quality I always find fascinating in any work of art: a singularity, strangeness, and sincerity that cannot be faked. A work that could have only been created by this precise person for their own inscrutable reasons. Here is a song in which 1) women ask Jimmy Ray what his name is, 2) he angrily refuses to tell them, and 3) he tries to hook up with them(?). It’s a rockabilly song, by an Englishman, released in 1998, at least a decade after the genre’s brief, flickering revival? With a video that features black women playing double dutch while wearing Viking helmets? Who would do this? Well, the lyrics give a very explicit answer: Jimmy Ray would do this, although he might get mad if you ask him why.
It’s all completely inexplicable, but for one brief moment I, along with a decent chunk of other people, couldn’t get enough. For all those same reasons, rarely has a song seemed so blatantly destined for one-hit wonder status. Yet even by that standard, it was still remarkable how little interest anyone seemed to show in even pretending that Jimmy Ray would have any more success. While two more Jimmy Ray singles were, in some technical sense, released, I don’t believe I ever heard them mentioned anywhere, let alone played. After a summer opening for The Backstreet Boys (which must have been an experience for all concerned), Mr. Ray rocketed back into obscurity just as quickly as he had rocketed out of it. It is unlikely that anyone has accidentally heard a Jimmy Ray song in this century.
The experience of being a one-hit wonder has always fascinated me, especially when that one hit comes your first time out of the gate, and Jimmy Ray provides an exceptionally pure example of the form. He must have imagined, at least on some level, that this was just the beginning. Right? That it was the start of years of fame, of attention, of interviews with music journalists where his musings about the artistic intention behind his next album would meet with rapt, respectful attention. How did it feel, then, to launch his career, see it succeed beyond all reasonable expectations, and then have it all immediately taken away? I can speculate, but only those who have experienced it can really know. Probably most of them make their peace with it. After all, the only reason to try to make a career playing music is that you love playing music, as that love is usually the only reward you’ll ever get. So maybe it’s easy to accept your moment in the spotlight as simply a cherry on top of the sundae of a career doing the thing that you love. But maybe not. Maybe it haunts you forever, poisoning the rest of your life with the question of what might have been.
The thing is, that question about which I’ve idly speculated for so long has suddenly developed a certain urgency for me. This year I’ve experienced a rise to fame as unexpected and instantaneous as Jimmy Ray’s. And I have to tell you: I really, really like it. I like getting recognized in public, being invited to speak in front of crowds, receiving little framed awards from politicians, seeing Padma Lakshmi praise me on Twitter. It feels amazing, and I don’t want this feeling to go away. But in the back of my mind I know that all the interest and attention and praise I’m receiving right now may disappear as quickly as Jimmy Ray’s second single. How would that feel? Would it break me? Would I spend my life pathetically trying to reclaim that spotlight? Or will I think, oh well, that’s a bummer, but I got a bunch of memories and a million dollars out of the deal, and then just move on with my life? That would be the healthy way to go, but at times I find it hard to picture myself bowing out gracefully.
From what little I can find online, Jimmy Ray stayed in and around the business. He did some work as a producer for a while, and eventually, perhaps inevitably, released a “comeback” album in 2017. The lead single off that album had racked up a total of 8,701 listens on Spotify before I became the 8,702nd. It is a cover of his one hit. But, somewhat poignantly, this time he chose to release it under a different title: “Who Wants To Know?” The answer, as he must have suspected, is “basically nobody.” But Jimmy, if you’re out there: I do. I do want to know.