Shed Archive: The Kentucky Headhunters come to The Shed for the First Time

The Kentucky Headhunters have been playing The Shed consistently for well over a decade now. but there is a first time for everything! And this is a look at the article that was written just before the Headhunters came to The Shed for the first time! Check out where their headspace was way back in 2006! Then check out the video below of their most recent show here last year!

Kentucky Headhunters keep kicking down doors to give fans good music

By Steve Wildsmith, published in The Daily Times (August 18, 2006)

If Richard Young were the superstitious type, he might suspect that fate has been plotting against his band, the Kentucky Headhunters, for decades.

There was the record deal with Swan Song, the label founded by icons Led Zeppelin, back in the 1970s; the one that fell through when Zep drummer John Bonham overdosed and died. There was the protracted battle with Nashville executives in the 1980s, when the band insisted on being marketed as a country group and the suits pushed for them to accept a designation as a rock band.

And once the Headhunters got a taste of success, there was the dramatic shift away from the rootsy, earthy sounds of late-’80s/early-’90s country toward a more pop-oriented sound that proliferates today, a shift that left the Headhunters behind and caused a short-lived breakup of the band.

Were he prone to belief in curses or voodoo, Young might very well think his group had been hexed. Instead, he’s a country boy from Kentucky who knows full well that nothing in life comes easy, and that any measure of success comes through hard work and enduring any number of setbacks.

That’s the mindset his family, and thousands of others across the South, has had for centuries, ever since his ancestors settled the several hundred acres of farmland that Young still considers home. It’s not voodoo that’s plagued the Headhunters; it’s not even bad luck.

It’s just time, and that’s something no man can fight.

“Sometimes, I feel ignorant and old and behind the times about how certain songs hit it big and other songs don’t,” Young told The Daily Times this week. “But after I think about it for a while, I go listen to a couple of B.B. King records, or my Stones or Beatles records, and I forget all about it. I realize that what makes music good is still there; it’s just that time has marched on.”

Fortunately for country music, there’s still a place for the Kentucky Headhunters. Maybe not on the radio alongside slickly produced country-pop stars who seem groomed for television moreso than a concert stage, and maybe not because Nashville insiders feel like the Headhunters belong there. If anything, the Headhunters have kicked down the door and forced their way inside, taking up residence on the fringes of the ongoing country party and refusing to give up their seats because they’ve by-God earned them.

The band’s roots date back to 1968, when Young and his brother Fred, along with cousins Anthony Kenney and Greg Martin, started performing as Itchy Brother (named after Fred Young’s favorite cartoon character). Joined by various other musicians over the years, they achieved modest regional success and helped put Southern Kentucky on the map.

“Before Itchy Brother, there was no rock ‘n’ roll in Southern Kentucky,” Young said. “There were no heavy rock bands in this area, so we kind of set up the domino to get it all started up here. And it’s a great thing to go back and listen to the music we were making back then. One of these days, we’re going to put all of that stuff out, because we’ve got acres and acres of tapes.”

Throughout the 1970s, the band flirted with national success; the deal with Swan Song came about in 1980, and the guys moved back and forth from Kentucky to Atlanta to try and gain a foothold with a label that would take a chance on them.

“At least by 1975, we were getting good enough and well-known enough in the South, and we had several close calls as a rock band,” Young said. “But it seems like there’s always been some obstacle where we were going in a positive direction and then we hit a brick wall.”

The first major stumbling block was in 1982, when Itchy Brother broke up and the boys went their separate ways. Three years later, Martin attempted to get the band back together, and when Kenney declined, Arkansas native Doug Phelps was brought on board as his replacement. Phelps brought along his brother, Ricky Lee, to sing vocals, and the Kentucky Headhunters were born.

A seven-song album of demos made their way to Nashville, where executives perked up their ears. And although the Headhunters were loathe to relocate to Music City, it became evident, Young said, that fate was nudging them in that direction.

“We had played there in 1969 or ’70, and we never went back until 1988,” he said. “As much as we have an appreciation for Appalachian music and that style and where it developed from, we were more interested in its predecessors than what was going on in country music. We were listening to Jimmy Rodgers and Bill Monroe, and I understood that better than commercial country.

“But then country hit a real cool stretch with people like Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle and k.d. lang. And we were looking at all of these acts and said, ‘You know, Nashville is only 80 miles from here.’ We had broadened our horizons by then, and that music was acceptable to us. We could understand it, because a lot of it had a rock ‘n’ roll groove.”

That groove, however, raised the ire of country executives, who felt the band was more of a rock than a country act. Based on the success of Earle and Hank Williams Jr., however, Mercury took a chance and signed the band in 1989, adding three classic country covers (of songs by Bill Monroe, Henson Cargill and Don Gibson) to the band’s demo and releasing it as “Pickin’ on Nashville,” the band’s label debut.

As a result, the album won a Grammy and sold well. The group’s second album, “Electric Barnyard,” did reasonably well also, and for three years, the band enjoyed modest success among fans of both country and Southern rock. The Phelps brothers quit in 1992, and two original members of Itchy Brother – Kenney and singer Mark Orr – returned to the band. Doug Phelps has subsequently replaced Orr, and the group has put out a number of albums in the years since, including “Flying Under the Radar,” released in June.

The band still draws respectable crowds on the Southern rock/outlaw country tour circuit, often appearing with like-minded predecessors such as Lynyrd Skynyrd. And while country has shifted back toward a slicker sound, Young credits a few young mavericks from the late 1980s for opening the genre’s doors to a bunch of boys from Kentucky.

“All those people – Lyle and Steve and Hank Jr. and k.d. – they allowed the Kentucky Headhunters to wind up in country music,” he said. “If that was today, I don’t think that would be allowed to happen. Gary Rossington (of Lynyrd Skynyrd) and I were talking about it the other night when we played together; how it’s hard with as much music going on, for people to find anything decent.

“We really need to get some good music going on out there. It’s like we’ve hit a brick wall with the musical styles, and we need to get more roots back in country. I know things have to change and that time marches on, but I think we need to march to a little bit different step.

“For us, we never look at ourselves as any different than the audience,” he added. “If you want to see a good Headhunters show, come prepared to get into it yourself. It’s just a matter of us pouring it off the edge of that stage and letting it wash out into the audience, and whatever intensity level it comes back at us, it spurs us on even more.”


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