The Kentucky Headhunters are not known for being a particularly prolific act, so ‘Hunter-heads everywhere should be high-fiving one another over this, the second album from the band in less than two years.
The last time the Headhunters released two albums within a comparably short period was back in 1993, the year the band revealed its blues roots to the country-rock fan base it had gained through a salvo of spirited country-rock hit singles. Those fans were still too new to understand that the Headhunters were never a formula-type outfit, a fact they made explicit on 1993’s throwback rock ‘n’ roll team-up with legendary Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson called “That’ll Work.” The collaborative album was recently given a long-delayed sequel with 2015’s “Meet Me in Bluesland,” a left-field hit last year in the Americana and blues camps.
Truly, the Kentucky bunch’s hits have always come from left field; the band’s core members have been doing that thing they do since 1968, regardless of changes in the musical landscape, and for the most part, the Headhunters’ well-digested blend of classic rock, country and blues has no expiration date. It does, however, have a tendency to shift focus from time to time. While “Bluesland” majors in the mostly upbeat vintage boogie and blues styles its title suggests, the band’s uncommonly prompt follow-up, “On Safari,” is a beast of a different color.
Recorded just after the unexpected passing of founding members’ Richard and Fred Young’s father, “Safari” harnesses raw emotions into a loosely knit, often sober song cycle celebrating Southern culture, though refreshingly free of chip-on-the-shoulder post-Confederate posturing or boneheaded clichés about countrified living.
Any one of today’s skinny-jeans-clad Nashville stars would likely beg for an opening track as swamp-rocking and authentically country-evoking as “Beaver Creek Mansion,” which offers almost-Rockwellian scenes of unselfconscious farm life and “kids swingin’ on a rope and a tire.” The difference between this and office-written dirt-road-fantasy fodder is that the song is a portrait of the real-life Kentucky spread the Youngs call home. It’s where the band was born and still meets to rehearse, and it makes a fitting kickoff for an album dedicated to departed family patriarch James Howard Young.
But while “On Safari” wears its rural upbringing proudly, with regional themes and sensibilities recurring throughout, it also wields the barbed-wire blast of guitar work schooled in the rock lexicon and recorded to glorious, in-your-face effect. That two-pronged mixture is at its best on a boot-stomping cover of Charlie Daniels’ 1974 album cut “Way Down Yonder” and “Deep South Blues Again,” the latter featuring Richard Young’s sandpapered roar and an off-kilter riff that, taken together, suggest a hoarse-throated Levon Helm fronting Led Zeppelin.
Indicative of the thread that runs through the disc, the two tracks are linked by twin shout-outs to the charms of the southernmost states, connecting the wide swath between Bowling Green and New Orleans and toasting such Mason-Dixon-line exports as Tupelo honey, frog legs and Dr. John.
The spiritual side of the South bubbles up first on the Bad Company- and Free-like “I Am the Hunter,” bearing British blues-rock guitars coupled with lyrics that sidestep typical rock topics in favor of “searchin’ for the higher light.” Richard Young’s tortured-sounding vocal adds ballast to “Crazy Jim,” a band original confirming the Headhunters’ first-generation Southern-rock pedigree. Evoking Lynyrd Skynyrd’s down-tempo “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” and sketching a picture of an unpopular local simpleton who good-naturedly turned the other cheek, the track preaches a gentle love-your-neighbor message.
Helping to bring the album in for a joyous landing is the swaying, waltz-like “God Loves a Rolling Stone,” a Waylon & Willie ringer that serves as a rustic benediction before the Chet Atkins-esque instrumental “Governor’s Cup” charmingly clears the palate in surprisingly uncharacteristic style.
The fact that you won’t find slick production, unusually memorable hooks or calculatedly commercial songcraft anywhere on the new Headhunters collection is simply the result of the band’s comfort level with its longtime homemade aesthetic, an increasing rarity in the age of a ProTools-fueled, multiple-revenue-stream music industry looking for TV placements and marketing spinoffs.
For those drawn to such fare, the concrete jungles offer more than enough. Those who long for uncontrived old-school rock-and-roots hybrids will find this endangered species alive and well throughout “On Safari,” an expedition down the back road less taken.