Getting to Know Richard Young of The Kentucky Headhunters

Richard Young on Right

Nearly thirty years ago, The Kentucky Headhunters hit the country charts, first with “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” and then “Dumas Walker.” But the band dates back another twenty years to 1968. At inception, fifty years ago, they were called Itchy Brother. When one of them quit, they decided they needed a new name. Blues giant Muddy Waters called his early band the Headhunters because they would look for other bands just to run them out of town. Liking that idea, the Young brothers, the Phelps brothers, and lead guitarist Fred Martin called themselves the Headhunters, adding “Kentucky” because they were all from around Edmonton, Kentucky.

Keeping it in the family, Richard Young’s son, John Fred, is the drummer for Black Stone Cherry, who are also joining us. The Headhunters could do two shows: music and stories. In fact, we’re trying to talk them into that. Here’s some of what Richard told us with more to follow. He was at home when we called, and was just about to listen to new mixes of the Headhunters’ appearance at England’s Ramblin’ Man Fair. It will be their next album, and should be ready the week we sail. We started by talking about their breakthrough, and how it happened in country music.

Do you ever listen to country music today and ask yourself, “How on earth were we ever categorized as a country band?”

We asked ourselves THAT when we were signed. We were a Southern Rock band. Always were. We were going to be on Capricorn Records, then Capricorn folded. Then we were going to be the first American band on Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records, then Zeppelin broke up and their manager got sick. Then we did a showcase in Nashville and it was like someone said there was a bomb in the place. The room cleared out in about two minutes. The only one, besides the waitresses, who didn’t leave was a guy from Mercury Records, and that was the guy who signed us.

If someone had told us back in the Seventies that we’d be on a country label, we’d have laughed ‘em out of the building. We were a blues-rock band. We grew up around country music, but we listened to R&B on WLAC, Nashville, and my dad listened to Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald. We’d go out to the milk barn and the guys out there would be playing Hank Williams. Then we traded work with some African American farmers, and we’d go to their place and the radio would be on gospel. So we heard it all, but we never woulda dreamed we’d be on a Nashville label. What happened, I think, was that there was a small window in country music in the mid-Eighties when Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang, and others were on major labels. Nashville needed a band with that kind of sensibility, and, by the grace of God, it was us. Rock guys back then were wearing leotards, so maybe Nashville was the right place for us. We’d lived on farms, we’d grown beans, corn, tobacco, and peas, so it wasn’t like we didn’t know what country was.

But there’s some country in Southern Rock.

Sure is. All the Southern Rock bands have rural sensibilities. Listen to the Allmans’ “Ramblin’ Man,” or a lot of Skynyrd. We just didn’t think we belonged on a country label, but then you get older and you come to appreciate your heritage. We just didn’t go out of our way to listen to country back then. We were into the Beatles, Stones, Moby Grape, Humble Pie, Free, and so on. I guess you’d call it classic rock now. Because we got famous after the Allmans and Skynyrd, people think we grew up listening to them. No! They were listening to the same bands as us. They just got deals before us.

Do you like current country music?

We’ll be driving to a gig and someone will play a country station. We look at each other. Who wants to kick who in the butt for playing that? We usually switch straight to classic rock. But we like Chris Stapleton. We could rock out with him. Good Kentucky boy. You sure don’t hear him much on radio, but he’s selling some records.

Your first hit, “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” was a song by the king of Bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. When Elvis Presley covered Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” someone asked Monroe what he thought of it, and he said, “Them was powerful checks.” What did he say about “Walk Softly,” do you know?

I know exactly what he said. Ralph Emery had a show on The Nashville Network, and he had Bill Monroe on. Ralph asked Bill what he thought of “Walk Softly,” and Bill said, “Ralph, did I tell you I had a new calf born this morning?” Then the checks started hitting his account and he realized we’d done the song to honor him. Then he said, “Them boys made me more money than
Elvis Presley.”

“Walk Softly” is one of Bill Monroe’s not-so-well-known songs. How did you latch onto it?

We’d been playing it since the Seventies. Back then, we’d send out audition cassettes. One bar-owner said he liked the tape, but he’d never heard of the songs. We said, “That’s ‘cause we wrote ‘em.” He said, “Well, we need to hear some songs we know.” So we worked up the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” and Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly.” We just did them in our style. But that song came from needing to play some covers.

This is your fiftieth year. If you could rewind fifty years and tell yourself something you’ve learned since, what would it be?

(Uncharacteristically long pause). Y’know, I don’t think I’d change anything. Learning is a process. I can read music contracts like a lawyer now. Maybe I shoulda had that skill back then. But, now that I know how it all turned out, I don’t think I’d change anything. We’re “lifer” bands like the Charlie Daniels Band or the Stones. We’ve heard “no” more than “yes,” and that’s okay. You just keep your head down and keep doin’ it. We played B.B. King’s club on Times Square in New York and we were outside waiting for a ride, looking out at the lights. Eighteen hours later, I was back home on a tractor feeding hay. That’ll keep you pretty centered. We’ve kept our ducks in a row. No one much has fallen off the bowling alley into the gutter. Sometimes, a guy will get sideways, but we’ll just clip their ass and carry on.

Compared with many groups that started back then, we’ll be seeing four guys who have been in the Headhunters for a long time. Is there a reason for that?

This incarnation of the Headhunters has been together twenty-one, twenty-two years. We’re pretty resilient to ass-whuppins, I guess.

From your schedule, you play a good number of biker rallies.

We were smart enough to go after go after biker groups when no one else much was doing it, especially no one in country music because country doesn’t fly with the biker crowd. It’s gotta be rock. Bikers like to get away from everything, they like the air in their hair, they like cold beer, and they like rock. I’m not a biker myself. I rode one once, didn’t get above twenty miles-an-hour, but I love those crowds and they love us.

Have you ever worked a cruise before?

A couple of them. I wouldn’t leave dry land by air or sea for the longest time, but now I do. I like the cruises. You’ll be sitting having breakfast and you never know who’s gonna sit down beside you. Could be another one of the acts on the bill. Could be a fan. We tossed our egos out of the window a long time back. It’s one of our calling cards. We’re one of the most personable bands out there. We’ll wade out into the crowd after a show. Take photos, sign whatever you wanna sign. We ask folks what they like. We’re like the store owner that takes time to talk to every customer.

More from our conversation with Richard Young in Southern Rock’s Family Values article. He talks about his son, John Fred Young, and John Fred’s band, Black Stone Cherry. And he’ll talk about Black Stone Cherry opening for the Headhunters … and the Headhunters opening for Black Stone Cherry.

Colin Escott © 2018