The Kentucky HeadHunters

May 21, 1997

The Kentucky HeadHunters

They're back - overalls and all


Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Fred Young, drummer for The Kentucky HeadHunters and owner of one bodacious pair of sideburns, still can get pretty worked up about the last season of ``Hee Haw.''

For those who don't remember, producers tried to boost ratings by taking the proudly hokey TV show out of the cornfield and gussying it up a bit. It was quite a contradiction for a show named ``Hee Haw.''


Young, 38, views it as nothing less than a conspiracy to rob country music of its soul. He traces the plot back to the 1970s, when Olivia Newton-John scored big hits on the country charts with dubious records like ``Have You Never Been Mellow.''

``That started fizzling out,'' Young said, his long whiskers dusting the giant tabletop in the RCA Records conference room as he nodded. ``Then they tried to change `Hee Haw,' a show which everybody all over the country liked. They wanted to take those overalls off people.''

As happens often in this band that has been playing together in various combinations since they were teenagers, someone else finished the thought: ``They're trying to get over the fact that everyone thinks we're a bunch of idiots and hillbillies and barefoot,'' said Doug Phelps, once the HeadHunter's bassist, and now its rhythm guitar player and lead singer.

``But you know what? You can wear bib overalls and be barefoot and still have a lot of intelligence, and have a lot of wisdom.''

The Kentucky HeadHunters, pride of Metcalfe County, Ky., already have made the point. Richard Young and his brother Fred, their cousin Greg Martin, and brothers Ricky Lee and Doug Phelps stormed south to Nashville in 1989.

In a town where many bands have starched-to-perfection stage clothes but don't play on their own records, the HeadHunters were a real band with long hair, rumpled clothing and chops.

Hardly anyone expected their souped-up versions of songs by country greats like Bill Monroe and Waylon Jennings to get much notice. That was a mistake. ``Pickin' On Nashville'' sold more than a million, and produced hits like ``Oh Lonesome Me'' and ``Dumas Walker.''

For a blink of the eye, artificial boundaries between country and rock seemed to come tumbling down, as did pretensions of taking country music uptown. It didn't last.

``Our second album sold almost a million copies,'' said group leader Richard Young, 42. ``And by Nashville standards - I guess because it sold less (than the first) - we were doing something wrong.

``And I don't think that's true.''

The group imploded under the pressure to repeat its success, with Ricky Lee and Doug Phelps going off to form a duo, Brother Phelps. The Kentucky HeadHunters continued, adding bassist Anthony Kenney (another Young cousin) and vocalist Mark Orr. The next album, ``Rave On,'' leaned decidedly to bluesy rock. It bombed in 1993, and the band left Mercury Records.

In 1995, staring at the ceiling from a motel room bed in Ohio and facing the loss of another lead vocalist (Orr was tired of the road), Richard Young said to himself, ``OK, enough's enough.''

He got on the phone and set up a meeting with the Phelps brothers.

``It was a convenient time for this to happen,'' Richard Young said. ``Neither one of us was burning up the airwaves or the TV waves.''

Ricky Lee Phelps, the original lead singer, declined to return because he wanted to go into the ministry. He suggested his brother return alone, this time as lead singer.

It worked, and the band started writing songs at once. It took the finished CD to RCA and was signed in short order.

The new CD ``Stompin' Grounds'' is a return to the form the band had been seeking since losing the Phelps brothers. Even with three guitarists (Kenney stayed on as bassist, and Doug Phelps switched to guitar), the Kentucky country roots of the HeadHunters are more evident than ever.

The first single, a remake of the Marty Robbins hit ``Singin' the Blues,'' was not embraced by country radio programmers. There's plenty of other ammunition, such as the witty sing-alongs ``Cowboy Best'' and ``Private Parts,'' and the story-song ``Runnin' Water,'' about backwoods women who risk their lives to escape loveless marriages.

``Some people have said the HeadHunters will never be anything but a bash and party band,'' Richard Young said. ``Our new album shows that's not true.''

Band members say traces of 1960s San Francisco rock band Moby Grape, The Beatles, and especially The Lovin' Spoonful turn up on ``Stompin' Grounds.''

But make no mistake, says Fred Young, The Kentucky HeadHunters are not part of the conspiracy.

``It's (the music) got to have that heart and soul of a country person. I don't care if they're in New York City, they've got some of that and they know what `Hee Haw' means.''

The Herald-Mail Articles