Nashville has hardly been the same since the Kentucky Headhunters took it by storm in 1990. A country act—in the loosest sense of the term—the Headhunters’ hard-driving music ranges far afield into boogie, old-style rock ’n roll, and white-boy electric guitar blues. The result is as rowdy and woolly as the singers themselves—a guitar-charged stomping sound variously described as “psycha-billy” and “hillbilly speed metal.”
Years ago the country music industry would have turned a deaf ear to the Headhunters, or at the very least trimmed their flowing hippy hairdos and outfitted them with cowboy hats. The pool of country is widening, however; many of the newest listeners were weaned on rock ’n’ roll. Headhunter lead singer Ricky Phelps told Rolling Stone: “After [Southern rockers] Lynyrd Skynyrd met their fate [in a plane crash], their fans didn’t have anything to listen to. They still had a hankering to hear something that’s got a little kick in the ass to it. We filled that gap.”
Three of the five Kentucky Headhunters were actually
Band members include Greg Martin (lead guitar), born c. 1953; Ricky Lee Phelps (guitar, vocals), born c. 1954; Doug Phelps (bass guitar), born c. 1960; Richard Young (rhythm guitar), born c. 1955; and Fred Young drums), born c. 1959. Martin and the Youngs played with the Itchy Brothers, c. 1969-81. All members have prior professional experience with bluegrass, boogie, or rock groups. Band formed in 1985, played monthly radio program on WLOC-FM, Munfordville, Ky., c. 1987-89. Signed with Polygram Records, 1989, had first hit single with “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” 1990.
Awards: Named best new vocal group by the Academy of Country Music and nominated for best new vocal group by the Country Music Association, both 1990; Grammy Award for best country performance by a duo or group, 1991, for Pickin’ on Nashville.
Addresses: Record company —Polygram Records, Inc., Worldwide Plaza, 825 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019.
born and raised in Kentucky—Greg Martin and brothers Fred and Richard Young. Martin met the Youngs in the late 1960s when he joined a blues and boogie band called the Itchy Brothers. Basically a standard 1970s bar band, the Itchy Brothers managed to work their way to New York where they were almost signed by the Swan Song label. When that deal fell through, however, the group disbanded. Martin found work backing singer Ronnie McDowell; Fred Young showed up in the movie Sweet Dreams as a drummer in a country band.
While with McDowell’s group Martin met bass guitarist Doug Phelps, a native of Arkansas. Tired of the rigors of touring, Martin and Phelps decided to form their own band. They returned to Metcalfe County, Kentucky—Martin’s home—and enlisted the services of the Young brothers. The group was rounded out when Phelps’s brother Ricky joined. By late 1985 the Kentucky Head-hunters were performing their hybrid country metal music in clubs throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. They managed to talk a local radio station into producing the live monthly Chitlin’ Show that eventually brought them a wide base of support.
Remembering those early days, Richard Young told the Akron Beacon Journal: “We had people coming into the radio studio out of tobacco patches to see what was going on. They’d come in in their tobacco work clothes and say, ‘What’re you all doin’ over here?’” The question was not an easy one to answer. Martin and the Youngs had cut their teeth on rock and boogie, and the Phelps brothers were versed in bluegrass and country. What the men did as Headhunters was to fuse all their influences into a sound that would reach the legions of Dixie longhairs. The Kentucky Headhunters became a quintessential blue-collar bar band that seemed to play music just for the fun of it.
Eventually the Headhunters came to the attention of Harold Shedd, a Nashville producer who had worked with country acts Alabama and K. T. Oslin. Shedd signed the band to the Polygram label, and then—in a move almost unheard of for a fledgling group—he gave the Headhunters complete artistic license over their work. “Harold could tell we had a sound of our own,” Martin told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “He knew the best way to get at that sound was to leave us alone. I think he stuck his head in the studio once for about five minutes to say hello. Once the whole thing was over, he listened to it and gave his approval. He’s been very good to us.”
The Headhunters released their debut album, Pickin’ on Nashville, late in 1989. Within a few weeks they had placed a single on the country top forty charts, a wildfire version of the Bill Monroe song “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine.” To the astonishment of the Headhunters, the country music industry warmed to them immediately and opened every important avenue for their astonishment Richard Young admitted that he was amazed at the support his group got from Nashville. “But the reason they were [supportive] is that they were just starved to death for good music with some soul in it of any kind because everything had been so one lane all the time.” Young added: “Now all of a sudden this band comes along driving in five lanes. It was strange, but they liked it. I think we came at a time when the country music industry must have realized that they had to do something and change or they weren’t gonna get a new market of people.”
Pickin’ on Nashville yielded two more hits, “Dumas Walker,” and “Oh, Lonesome Me,” both of which “cook up a foaming broth of guitar-based country rock, then serve it up steaming,” to quote a reviewer in Country America. The raucous Headhunters were invited to tour with superstar Hank Williams, Jr., an opportunity that quickly brought their work to just the right audience. Ina review of one of these joint concerts Lexington Herald-Leader correspondent Walter Tunis wrote: “There are no great revelations in the Headhunters’ music. In fact, much of it seems rooted in very familiar late ’60s and ’70s boogie and blues, the same sort of material Williams toys with. But there [is] a humility and sense of fun throughout the band’s performance that [proves] extremely refreshing.”
The Country America reviewer noted that in an age where music careers seem tailored with meticulous precision, “the Headhunters provide a wonderfully untamed style of anything-goes back-porch picking.” The group’s members are elated with their sudden good fortune after so many years of struggle. Richard Young admitted that the Headhunters are one band who haven’t gotten to the top on good looks—as he put it, “We’re ugly as spit, every one of us.” What has worked for the Headhunters is energy, a spirit of good fun, and teamwork. “There’s a strong bond between all of us,” Martin told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “We’re pretty much a family band. We argue and we fight like brothers would, but in the end, everyone sticks up for one another and makes each other play the best they can.”
The Kentucky Headhunters were named the best new vocal group of 1990 by the Academy of Country Music and were nominated for the same award by the Country Music Association. The future looks bright for the group as well. Richard Young told Rolling Stone that the Headhunters are ready to rip and roar. He said, “We got 2000 songs we’ve written over the past twenty years.”
Pickin’ on Nashville, Polygram, 1989.
Akron Beacon Journal, April 29, 1990.
Charlotte Observer, August 3, 1990.
Country America, May 1990.
Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1990.
Lexington Herald-Leader, October 29, 1989; March 18, 1990.
Post-Tribune (Gary, Indiana), May 11, 1990.
Rolling Stone, April 5, 1990.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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