STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
The Kentucky Headhunters’ humble beginning dates back to the late 60’s, when brothers Richard and Fred Young and their cousins Greg Martin and Anthony Kenney embarked on a quest to become rock stars in a band they called the “Itchy Brothers.”
“We heard all this country music growing up that we were dodging. We just didn’t want anything to do with it,” recalls Richard Young, while on tour in the south. “We wanted to be rock stars. All that music and culture — it got to you whether you wanted it to or not.”
Following a successful 13 year run as a popular regional act in their home state of Kentucky, the group disbanded in the early 80’s. The band members soon dispersed in pursuit of individual interests.
Fast forward to 1985, when the group was reassembled under the moniker “The Kentucky Headhunters.” The new line-up included Greg Martin (lead guitar and vocals), Doug Phelps (bass and vocals), Ricky Lee Phelps (vocals and harmonica), Richard Young (rhythm guitar and vocals) and Fred Young (drums). The quintet rapidly regained a following.
“When the Headhunters came around in 1986, we decided we were going to put ourselves back in school and go back and really learn how to play those riffs — the Chuck Berry rhythms, the Johnnie Johnson rhythms — and learn about Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker and get deep into it,” reflects Young from the road. “It really made us go back to school and learn how to do it right.”
On the strength of a demo submitted to the label, Mercury Records signed the band to a recording contract. The demo served as the foundation for the band’s 1989 debut, “Pickin’ on Nashville.” The album yielded the hit singles “Dumas Walker,” reaching number 15 on the charts, and “Oh, Lonesome Me,” making the Top 10. The album also earned the band a 1990 Grammy Award for “Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.” They were also awarded Academy of Country Music, “Top New Vocal Duo or Group” (1989), Country Music Association “Album of the Year” (1990) and “Vocal Group of the Year” (1991).
Over the following decades, the Kentucky Headhunters released a collection of albums, including “Electric Barnyard” (1991), “Rave On!” (1993), “That’ll Work” (with Johnnie Johnson) (1993), “Stompin’ Grounds” (1997), “Songs from the Grass String Ranch” (2000), “Soul” (2003), “Big Boss Man” (2005) and “Dixie Lullabies” (2011).
The band’s extensive body of work led them to perform before a massive audience and a growing number of fans around the world.
“We’re not the everyday household word, but we still play for hundreds of thousands of people, and somehow or another, they find us,” says Richard Young. “We have people that have the notion that they have to keep coming back to see the band. That speaks highly for us.”
“I would much rather have that for many, many decades than to have a situation where it’s like a spark in the wind,” adds Young. “You’re huge for five years and you didn’t really make a contribution to music. We make new fans every night we play.”
“We’ve been all over the place musically,” adds Young. “Unpredictable and unmanageable — those are the two words that come to mind most about the Headhunters. I always try to keep an open mind with any type of music that comes along.”
“We’re just a bunch of guys that grew-up wanting to absorb every kind of music that we could. There’s no real tag. A lot of people say, ‘OK, they’re a southern rock, blues, country band.’ I’ll take it all. Whatever anybody wants to call us. To me, the Headhunters are just happy rock and roll with a tinge of blues, country and a lot of southern rock.”
With an appreciation for the early roots of rock and roll, The Kentucky Headhunters work with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnnie Johnson was given a boost by one rock’s greatest guitar players.
“We were very fortunate and owe a big thanks to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. When he was asked in 1986 to do the “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll” movie,” says Young, “he agreed to be the music director under one circumstance. He had to put Johnny and Chuck together. That was one of the greatest moves that a rock star could ever pay in homage to their influences, which was to put those two guys back together in that movie.”
“It’s quite obvious when you listen to that stuff, especially with Chuck, they were the first people to bond together as a team and make something happen,” adds Young. “We were very fortunate that we got to know and work with Johnnie.”
After recording the “That’ll Work” album in 1993, the Kentucky Headhunters and Johnson (the man Rolling Stone called “the greatest sideman in rock and roll” for his groundbreaking piano work with Chuck Berry) returned to the studio in 2003 to record tracks for the “Soul” album.
Out of those sessions came a bonus — the long overdue and latest release, “Meet Me in Birdland” (2015), featuring Johnnie Johnson, which would be their last collaborative effort prior to Johnson’s passing in 2005.
“We’re very proud we got to write and play on an album with Johnnie Johnson before his passing,” says Young. “I’m proud for Johnny and proud for our kids. We wanted the world to see that Johnny wasn’t forgotten and what he stood for in music and his contributions.”
From the album’s opening track, “Stumblin’,” this 11-song release showcases the diverse musical influences and talents of a band that can rock with the best of them. Standout tracks include “Walking With the Wolf,” “Little Queenie,” “Party In Heaven,” “Meet Me In Bluesland” and “Fast Train.”
“For just having three days, I think we knocked it out pretty good,” says Young. “We listened to the playback on the tapes, and we didn’t have to do anything to it. It was there. It was amazing. The hand of God must have been with us.”
“To be able to rub shoulders and meet those people that we admired so much growing up and listened to and then being able to do an album with Johnnie Johnson is a thrill.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Kentucky Headhunters
Where: The Sellersville Theater; located at 24 West Temple Ave., Sellersville.
When: Concert is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 21.
Info.: Tickets can be purchased by calling (215) 257-5808 or online at www.st94.com.