When the Kentucky HeadHunters burst on the commercial scene in 1989, their good-humored mix of Marshall Tucker Band-styled Southern rock and Don Gibson ("Oh Lonesome Me") vintage country was a runaway success.
Pickin' on Nashville, which included the down-home "Dumas Walker," went on to sell nearly 2.5 million copies for the HeadHunters and Mercury Records.
The good times didn't last. Now, barely a decade later, the HeadHunters have put out their self-recorded new album, Songs From the Grass String Ranch, on Audium, which could be seen as a label of last resort for Nashville-abandoned acts.
"Times means everything," HeadHunters guitarist Richard Young said. "And you know, the HeadHunter music is not a music of the times, it's a music of all times. I don't want to call it a dying breed, but it's a lonely breed. There's not that many good Southern rock bands these days."
And not many Nashville-linked artists, Travis Tritt and Clay Davidson aside, are willing to fly the rebel flag of the Southern rocker, as the HeadHunters do on such songs as "Once in Awhile"
Second Time Around
"We have to really prove ourselves this day and time. People don't believe that, but there's still a stigma around that. You say, oh, you're a Southern rock band, and it's like, 'Oh, my God. Watch out. He's probably got a knife or something.' A lot of people will say, 'So you guys like that rebel flag, you must not like black people.' Tomorrow night we're playing at B.B. King's club in New York City; B.B. being a friend of ours is the reason we're there."
In fact, the Kentucky HeadHunters, who formed in 1968, are based in the blues. Young recalls sneaking off to Nashville at age 15 to see the late great blues guitarist Albert King at the Exit/In before the club "got screwed up. It's back when it was a lowdown, blues-type funky club," he said.
"We got up there and hung out with Albert [in his tour bus]. And I did the dumb white-kid question: 'So why is it that black guys got so much more soul?' "And it straightened my life out, because he said, 'No, you got it all wrong. It ain't what color you are, it's where it's coming from.' So we learned at an early age from one of the masters how to do that."
The blues connection extended to Pickin' on Nashville, their debut album after years of major-label rejection, which came about thanks to the generosity (or "gen-your-osity," as Young pronounces the word in true hillbilly fashion) of a "blues freak" who loaned the band $4,500.
A Taste Of Tradition
"Southern rock is a blues-based music. It's our love, as Southern gentlemen, that we've been able to take from the black music that we enjoy so much and make it something special for us to play," Young said. "We play blues music, but let's face it, we're not the originators. We found that out real quick by doing an album with Johnnie Johnson," he added, referring to That'll Work, their 1993 collaboration with the pioneering blues/R&B pianist who helped create the Chuck Berry sound while working as a sideman to the rock 'n' roll originator.
The HeadHunters' early country sound was due mostly to lead singer Ricky Lee Phelps, who left the band in 1992 along with guitarist brother Doug Phelps to form the short-lived Brother Phelps. Doug returned in 1996 to become the HeadHunters' lead singer.
The split was acrimonious and at least temporarily disabling, but also inevitable, according to Young.
"You remember the time the Army tank went back on 'The Twilight Zone' and Custer was there, and the guys could've changed history? I don't think I'd do it," Young said. "There was an element there in the band, a chemistry, that was never going to get well. And it's the difference between people. Gosh, you know, nobody's a bad person that ever played in this band. There are just people who are so determined not to be in a band.
"You can't have a guy wanting to be Elvis Presley, if it's a band. And that's what we were dealing with."