In the simplistic logic of longstanding musical clichés, country music is historically associated with rural America, humility and salt-of-the-earth common sense. Rock ‘n’ roll, meanwhile, depending on its vintage and tax bracket, can elicit everything from prima-donna snobbery and hedonistic hijinks to the high-decibel roar of thickheaded dinosaurs who find their value in their volume. Such generalities miss the mark as often as they’re on target, but perhaps no American band turns the country/rock dichotomy on its ear as completely as The Kentucky Headhunters. Even the band’s two-pronged name defies easy categorization, a fact that lines up neatly with the fact that its music is equally tricky to define in typical, genre-based terms.
The quartet’s brand-new “On Safari,” its first new studio album in five years, is a bracing blend of guitar-dominated rock shot through with blues and country—indeed, the two genres most responsible for the mutt we now call rock ‘n’ roll. While it includes remakes of ’70s-era songs by Charlie Daniels and Alice Cooper among its dozen cuts, such unlikely bedfellows meet comfortably in the middle, thanks to the Headhunters’ sure sense of identity. Appropriately, the album kicks off with “Beaver Creek Mansion,” a spirited, shuffling portrait of the generations-old, 1,300-acre family farm where official band headquarters “The Practice House” resides, as do founding members and brothers Richard and Fred Young, their families, some cattle, and nearly two dozen horses with well-hoofed Civil War bloodlines.
The horses had been a longtime pet project of the Youngs’ father, James Howard Young, who passed last April and whose spirit, according to band reports, hovered heavily over the sessions for the new album. “Governor’s Cup,” the finger-picked guitar instrumental that gracefully closes the disc, is only one example, carrying in its title a personal reference to James Howard’s long association with horses and local fair boards. From the common-man wisdom of “Rainbow Shine” to the homespun benediction “God Loves a Rolling Stone,” you don’t have to look far to recognize the presence of the Young family patriarch and his grounded, grass-roots lifestyle, even though the music itself largely bears the stamp of a different generation and culture.
“Being in the band is kind of like a family farm,” says vocalist/guitarist Richard Young, eloquently explaining the anomaly of the Headhunters’ heirloom variety of rural-route rock. “It’s a real family operation. Everybody [save for Arkansas-born transplant Doug Phelps] grew up . . . within a six-mile range, eight-mile range.” Young even credits the Headhunters’ eclectic sound partly to the agricultural setting in which his childhood unfolded. “We grew up here out on the farm listening to black spirituals, Lefty Frizzell and Chet Atkins against our will because the guys working on the farm, they were singin’ ’em. All these farms around here, all the families, some were African American, some were white people, and they would all work together in the fields and you would hear all these different sounds. People used to sing when they worked, and now they don’t do it ’cause they ride in these air-conditioned tractors and combines.”
Three-fourths of the band and all its mostly-blood-related crew call the Bluegrass State home, but Nashville was in fact the place where the band’s geographical identifier was slapped onto its original name, the Headhunters. Someone or other at Mercury Records recommended the addition, presumably to cement the notion of country music in the minds of listeners (as though the band’s regional accents and Southern-rock pedigree would have failed to accomplish the task). The guys were agreeable; to this day, though, their logo depicts the music-biz christening in unpretentious fashion, with “The Kentucky” portion of the moniker hastily scribbled on masking tape and stuck above “Headhunters”—a move indicative of the band’s self-deprecating sense of humor. Unselfconscious wit such as this also distinguished the video clips that helped take their rock-grounded hybrid sound to the upper reaches of the country charts beginning at the cusp of the 1990s, when Music Row was smitten with the far-shorter-haired and more stylistically conservative new traditionalists.
Core elements of Southern and vintage mainstream rock have since become standard vocabulary in contemporary country, but the Headhunters are now miles further down the road, having cut critically acclaimed, blues-themed collaborations with legendary Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson and, more recently, reconnected with their roots and influences on classic-rock cruises. “I told somebody a while ago,” quips Young, “we were always ahead of the curve, but we were just on a different road.”
While it would be inaccurate to call their platinum-selling, Grammy-winning success an accident, it wasn’t really part of the plan for the Headhunters, who’d been contentedly building a following playing regional dates and appearing regularly on Munfordville (Ken.) station WLOC’s “The Chitlin Show.” That, boys and girls, was what constituted “social media” in 1980s-era South Central America. “We never really wanted a big record deal . . . and I think that we probably weren’t ever meant to do [our music] any differently than we’re doing it right now,” says Young, who quickly acknowledges the band’s gratitude for the destiny-altering detour. “Thank God we had that era [of major mainstream success], to open up the skies for us where we could be, as they say in Nashville, unmanageable and unpredictable, and do what we’re gonna do. We just want people to hear the music,” Young says. “We’re not worried about selling a million records anymore. We already did that. Let’s have some fun.”
The pursuit of such frivolity would include the band’s recent double-header road trip playing for a crowd of 10,000 in Pennsylvania and 400 at a hip but hidden New York state barbecue joint where they played for gas money, dinner and the thrill of the kind of gig that “brings us back home,” as Young puts it. That analogy will fly, though the truth is that the Headhunter boys also bring their Kentucky home with them wherever they go, whether heading up the road or doing their first-ever dates in England and Switzerland earlier this year. Their obvious good humor and humility is a product of where they come from and how they were raised. And, fittingly, that ultimately points back to James Howard Young, to whom the Headhunters’ new album is lovingly dedicated.
Begun just two days after Mr. Young’s funeral, “On Safari” documents an expedition through a shadowy jungle of grief that somehow sprung to joyous life in a manner that Richard Young isn’t hesitant to identify as spiritual. Its raw immediacy resulted from the need to get to work before the band felt prepared, emotionally or otherwise. It’s nothing less than the sound of creative catharsis. “We needed something to recover from our loss,” says Young. “Man, I’m tellin’ you, everybody in our organization, in our families, we were all in this cloud of funk over losing Daddy, so [cutting the album] was almost unbelievable, almost like being led around. Fred and I were listening to the album, driving to the bus the other night, and he said, ‘Man, I don’t hardly remember recording that, do you?’ And I said, ‘No. A higher power from up north was probably involved because of Daddy.'”
When you hear a lifelong Southerner refer to the Man Upstairs as being from “up north,” however casually, you can’t help but get the idea that he was raised to disregard the arbitrary boundary lines that separate folks into culturally opposed Northerners and Southerners, or into narrowly defined “country” or “rock” musicians. The uncommonly rustic rock ‘n’ roll animal the Headhunters capture throughout “On Safari,” whether or not it’s your breed of choice, is a testament to the kind of down-home wisdom that would surely make a country daddy proud.