By Greg Tutwiler
Often referred to as “Southern Rock Roy-alty,” and even the “great American rock ‘n’ roll band,” The Kentucky Headhunters have sustained a music career that many dream about, and yet few have sustained. Music making that spans decades, brothers Richard and Fred Young, along with their cousins Greg Martin and Anthony Kenny formed their first band know as the Itchy Brothers in 1968. That band morphed into the Kentucky Headhunters, an occasionally changing ensemble of musicians that eventually won a Grammy award, a CMA Album of the Year Award, two CMA Vocal Group of the Year Awards, two Top 10 charting albums, and four consecutive Top 40 hits. They are often credited for creating a unique blend of honky-tonk, blues, and southern rock that appeals to audiences across multiple genres’ and still draws enthusiastic and multi-aged crowds some 40 plus years later. I caught up with Richard in between vocal tracks for their new album set to release in October, 2016.
Rock And Roll Beginnings
For about the first 20 years of the band, their sound was more typical of the four piece rock bands of that era. “We wanted to be an English rock act,” he told me, “but naturally with our rural accents and our rural sensibilities that was quite impossible. It created quite a good style though,” Richard laughed.
The band had some great opportunities in the 70s with record labels, getting signed right out of high school. But like so many bands in those days, record label’s moods turned on a dime, and many great acts got caught in management changes and label shifts. “We were living in Atlanta at the time, and southern rock had really reached the end of its super era. When Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed we all sort of looked at each other and said, ‘maybe it’s just not the right time for another southern rock band.”
“We came home and started honing our abilities even more so,” Richard said, “And started pursing that English rock band thing again.” The new incarnation of the band was eventually discovered by Mitchell Fox who was working for Led Zeppelin. Fox flew in from New York to catch the guys in Louisville, KY in 1978. He developed a relationship with Swansong Records to groom the band to be the first all American band at Swansong. “It was such a far fetched idea for a bunch of boys from Kentucky,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to happen, of course,” Richard mused. “John Bonham (Led Zeppelin drummer) passed away before we could ever get in the studio. That was quite a shock, and honestly knocked us below the belt a little bit.”
Changing With The Times
But the band trudged on, and in 1986, the band changed their name to the Headhunters. “We had decided to forget about a major record deal and just make our own album, and start our own radio show to get some exposure. We put together a little album called Pickin On Nashville. We had a great audience. Every Tuesday night we would go in and play live for 45 minutes. And it caught on quite well. It was a great way to let people know about the album we had recorded. We’d sell them out of the trunks of our cars after the show,” he recalled.
The show quickly caught on. People even began to contact them about being special guests on their show. “Everyone kept encouraging us to go to Nashville and showcase for some labels. Our comment was, ‘nah, thanks. We’ve been there before.’ We were just happy as larks playing on our radio show, and it was on the verge of us getting some commercial success.”
The guys finally got coaxed into a trip to Nashville and an appearance as a tag on band. A guy named Leroy Parnell was the draw that night. “We set up real quick and broke into the first song on our album, “Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine.” It was like somebody said, ‘there’s a bomb in the room. People were jumping over each other to get out,” he quipped. “There were probably 300 people in there and we cleared that room out in about five minutes.”
However, there was one guy in the room that came specifically to hear the Headhunters who knew Richard from his songwriting days in Nashville. He asked for a copy of their homemade album. “He called us the next day and said, ‘Well guys, I’m hooked. We may be cooking hamburgers next year but I gotta try this.”
The album came out pretty quickly and exploded up the charts. “It became everything we’d ever dreamed of,” Richard said. “There’s never been anything and never will be anything as off the wall as the Headhunters,” he surmised. “We knew our days on country radio were numbered, so we immediately started touring to all genres of people using our clout to open doors.” The band opened for artists like Bob Dylan and David Bouie. They played bike rallies and road houses, and opened for anyone they could make fit. “We would do that to turn the corner back, and I must say, it’s taken us close to 20 years to actually get back to the place we want to be known for, which is a southern rock blues band. We’re very happy where we are now. I saw it turn the corner when we did the Dixie Lullabies album. We started getting to do things like the Rock Legends cruise which was quite an honor.”
Knowing Their Roots
“It’s not that we’re against country music or any other genre’. We grew up on a farm as boys in Kentucky and were exposed to all kinds of music, but there’s always been a blues theme running beneath it all for us,” he said. “We’ve never lost that blues thing. That’s the difference. Our rural sensibilities and upbringing is probably the greatest gift we have and I think that’s always shown through in our music.”
In 2015, Alligator Records released a record with the Kentucky Headhunters that for Richard, “probably represents the band’s truest intent musically to date.” Meet Me In Blues Land is a collaboration with Johnnie Johnson, heralded by Rolling Stone in 2003 as “the greatest sideman in rock and roll,” for his groundbreaking piano work with Chuck Berry. “Meet Me In Blues Land is as good as it gets,” commented Richard’s brother (drummer), Fred.
Rock And Roll Star
I asked Richard if he ever thought he’d get to make music in seven different decades. “I really never really thought about it. We’ve just always been about the music. When someone asked me in the fourth grade if I knew what I was going to do when I grew up, I said right away, ‘I know what I’m going to be, I’m going to be a rock star,” he laughed. “My brother was the same; and my cousins too. We just had blinders for this. We had other interests of course but basically our whole focus was that we’ve always felt driven to do this.”
We’re sure glad you did Richard. With any luck, the next album set for release later this fall will further solidify the Kentucky Headhunters place in Americana roots, blues and rock history.