Last year, Chris Stapleton rose to national prominence as he racked up three CMA Awards for Male Vocalist of the Year, New Artist of the Year and Album of the Year for Traveller. The long-haired, gruff-voiced singer from Kentucky proved the ultimate inside-the-Beltway, outside-the-mainstream nominee, a favorite within the industry but virtually unknown to the average fan not familiar with Stapleton’s previous role as frontman for the bluegrass band the SteelDrivers.
More than 25 years ago, another act from the Bluegrass State, the Kentucky Headhunters, sent similar shock waves through the Nashville establishment. Brothers Ricky Lee and Doug Phelps, the Young brothers, Richard and Fred, and their cousin Greg Martin sported long, mostly unkempt hair, and were raised on the Beatles, with a sound that nodded to Chuck Berry and Moby Grape (yes, Moby Grape). They played Southern country-rock brandishing crunching guitars and aggressive percussion fills. Only in their twenties did they discover Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and other masters of country tradition. Their 1989 debut single, a guitar-driven, rock-tinged version of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” was met with shouts of approval and also cries of sacrilege.
Both Stapleton, viewed as a welcome alternative to so-called bro country, and the Kentucky Headhunters benefited from incredible timing and the public’s thirst for more substantial music. “There wasn’t anything else like us going on around here,” remembers drummer Fred Young, flanked by brother Richard, Doug Phelps and Martin, the band’s current lineup, at their Nashville publicist’s office. “Country was kind of coming out of that commercial pop thing and it had run its course.” Adds lead guitarist Martin, “We were just taking what we learned growing up and adapting it to country. But a whole lot of people said we weren’t country.”
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The sons of working-class parents with rural roots could not have been more country. “But we were seen as outsiders,” says guitarist-vocalist Richard Young. “A lot of people have heard the story of when we did a showcase for the record labels in Nashville. Everybody ran off except for [Mercury Records head] Harold Shedd, who signed us. Stan Hitchcock, who ran CMT, had a lot to do with our early success. He played the video for ‘Walk Softly’ a lot and he got behind the Headhunters because we were so much fun and visual. People had been missing that in music.” The guys portrayed themselves with a certain self-deprecating humor and just a touch of lighthearted rebellion. Even the title of the Headhunters’ 1989 debut album, Pickin’ on Nashville, hinted at a double meaning.
The album peaked at Number Two while the follow-up single to “Walk Softly,” “Dumas Walker,” landed in the Top 20. Their rendition of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” reached the Top 10.
The self-styled “outsiders” were soon copping CMA Awards, winning Album of the Year in 1990 for Pickin’ on Nashville, as well as Vocal Group of the Year. They repeated their Vocal Group honor in 1991. “It was a big shock,” recalls Richard Young. “We had never won anything in our lives. For us to be accepted and have that album basically explode around the world gave us a whole new life.”
Twenty-five years after that second Vocal Group CMA, life goes on for the now-four-man band. Their new album On Safari is set for release on November 4th. The four current members wrote the majority of the cuts, which range from “Crazy Jim,” a remembrance of a real-life character from their youth, to “Jukebox Full of Blues” and their first-ever instrumental, “Governor’s Cup.”
“A lot of the stuff we had written about two years ago,” says Richard Young. “Most of what we write now comes from real life, like ‘Crazy Jim.’ He was a local guy who would come into this record store where I worked and would hand everybody a rock.” Adds Martin, “You can’t make that kind of thing up. It’s a lot like Dumas Walker, who was a guy from our town. You had to know him to write about him.”
True to form, the Headhunters are still pushing boundaries with their take on Alice Cooper’s “Caught in a Dream” for On Safari. “That was a spur of the moment thing,” says bassist/vocalist Phelps. “It was off Alice Cooper’s first album that had ‘I’m Eighteen’ on it.”
For a group of perennial outsiders, it would be wrong to expect anything less.