headhunting through the years

The Kentucky Headhunters: Doug Phelps, Greg Martin, Fred Young and Richard Young. Photo by Joe McNally.

As he discusses the current and future doings of the Kentucky Headhunters, Richard Young tosses out a factoid that very much plays into the Metcalfe County band’s considerable past.

It deals directly with longevity – specifically the realization that guitarist Young, sibling drummer Fred Young and guitarist Greg Martin – have been making music together for 50 years. That chunk of time takes the alliance that began touring in the Glasgow region as Itchy Brother through the official formation of the Headhunters and its electric mix of blues, boogie and modern country in 1986. That’s when bassist/vocalist Doug Phelps signed up, making him, with a mere 32 year tenure, minus a brief mid ‘90s split, the youngster of the band.

“I’ve seen all four of us sit in with different people at jam sessions,” Young said. “So all of us individually, we’re pretty good. But, boy, when you put the four of us together, it’s a powerful thing that just seems to make people happy. It’s really good music.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think the band plays great. But there’s just this kind of happiness that happens when we’re together that transcends to the audience. It’s just a fun band. I mean, you can tell none of us has any kind of hang ups about ourselves. It’s always been about the band.”

Here’s a recap for any Kentuckian new to the Headhunters. Once the Itchy Brother era ended, the Headhunters blasted onto charts in 1989 with a solid one-two punch via a very rocking cover of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” and the original tune “Dumas Walker.” That combo earned a truckload of awards, including a Grammy.

But changes quickly took hold. Phelps, along with his lead vocalist brother Ricky Lee Phelps, exited as the band expanded its musical scope to emphasize inspirations that have long played into their music – namely, blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. Two albums with longtime Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson (1993’s “That’ll Work” and 2015’s posthumously released “Meet Me in Bluesland”) typified the growth. Doug Phelps rejoined the Headhunters in 1996.

“We’re so proud of what we achieved in those early years,” Young said. “That was a great foundation, but it was just a part of what the band was. Now, we’re really open and can do anything. It’s not really about country, rock, blues, jazz, rockabilly or anything. It’s about the Headhunters and how we’ve evolved over the years. You know, we’ve got the same bag of tricks we had in 1990. We carry those with us as well as the ones we’ve created lately. So it’s a very, very good place to be for us right now.”

Recent Headhunters activities have centered on the 2016 album “On Safari,” although the big news for the band has been a renewed willingness to tour overseas. Young resisted such travels in the past due to a fear of flying. Convincing him to make the journey for British and European shows in recent years was son John Fred Young, drummer for Black Stone Cherry, the rock troupe whose global popularity has been considerable.

“Black Stone Cherry twisted my arm after 34 years of not flying, so I got on an airplane to go over to Europe. When the Headhunters were Itchy Brother, we would go back and forth to New York and it just terrified me. John Fred said, ‘Daddy, this is ridiculous. You guys would have a whole new audience over in Europe just waiting for you. You’re going to get your butt on an airplane and you’re going to go over. We’ll even set up the shows for you.’ So all of a sudden, I’m a world traveler.”

Young said the immediate future for the Headhunters includes a live album, a possible studio record of blues-oriented music and, as always, a wealth of touring. The band performs Saturday at the Manchester Music Hall with Martin slipping into town tonight to play with his side project band, The Barren County Stumblers, at Lynagh’s Irish Pub.

“We’ve been so blessed to be able to do everything we’ve ever wanted to do,” Young said. “What’s great about that is we’ve found out some of the hardcore blues people will check out a few of our country songs from the early days while we’re turning country music fans onto the blues. It gives you a special worth that you’re not only out making a living doing exactly what you want to do, but that people are also taking to it. I guess you could call the Headhunters a musical education program.”

The Kentucky Headhunters, Those Guyz and Dustin Collins perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $20-$60. Call: 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com/event/the-kentucky-headhunters.



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