In 1989, with the release of their debut album Pickin’ on Nashville and its standout track “Dumas Walker,” the Kentucky Headhunters shared their favorite meal with country music fans all over America: a slawburger, fries and a bottle of Ski. The only problem was that few knew what the hell the band was singing about.
More concerning at the time, neither did influential record man Harold Shedd, who signed the long-haired, scruffy-looking Headhunters to their deal with Mercury Records and was poised to introduce them to Nashville and beyond. To Shedd’s ears, the song about a local night out in rural Kentucky wouldn’t connect with listeners outside of the band’s home state.
“We were mastering the album and he called me in the back room and said, ‘Richard, can we take this ‘Dumas Walker’ song off the record?’ He thought it was too regional,” says the Headhunters’ rhythm guitarist and co-founder Richard Young. “The point he was missing is everyone has a Dumas Walker’s, a little place people circled all night long and ate ice cream, milkshakes and cheeseburgers. They can relate it to their situation growing up.”
Ultimately, the song made the cut (“I convinced Harold,” says Young) and gave the Kentucky Headhunters their first Top 20 hit upon its official release as a single in 1990. But “Dumas Walker” wasn’t about a singular place. In fact, the song conflated a real-life marble-shooting old man by that name with the Greensburg, Kentucky, greasy spoon where the Headhunters would dine out on the mysterious slawburger and Ski combo. (For the record, it’s a hamburger topped with coleslaw; a Ski is a soda similar to Mountain Dew.) Young and the Headhunters — then made up of Young’s brother Fred on drums, Greg Martin on guitar, Doug Phelps on bass and Ricky Lee Phelps on vocals — merged Dumas the man with the eatery and the two became forever intertwined.
“Dumas Walker” the song, meanwhile, grew to become synonymous with bar band setlists, even if the bands covering it, just like Harold Shedd years earlier, had no clue what it was about.
“I had to look all that stuff up,” says Mike Harmeier of Mike and the Moonpies, who rehearsed a version of the song back when the group had a regular gig at Austin’s Hole in the Wall dive bar. “It’s that rocking back I-IV-V [chord progression] and we did that stuff all the time in the band because it was easy. You could fill up three to four hours doing country-rock songs like that. As long as I somewhat knew the lyrics, we could make it through a dancehall show.”
While the lyrics may have been near indecipherable, Harmeier says the video for “Dumas Walker” was unforgettable to him. Young credits the clip — a band performance video with outsized antics — with further breaking down any regional barriers.
“The best thing that happened to us was that video was in its virgin years at CMT and very few people were making videos,” he says. “We happened to be a Southern rock & roll band that could also be Spanky and Our Gang on film. We were entertaining. And the album came when country music was in a lull and when Nashville really needed something to light a fire under them. Even though they had these other great acts, there was not the visual appearance that there was with the Headhunters.”
For sure, no other videos at the time featured a singer juggling bowling pins or a bare-chested, string-bean drummer in a coonskin cap (that’d be Young’s brother Fred).
“The Headhunters had a magnetism that people just couldn’t resist. It was almost like watching the Monkees,” says Young. “People wanna be entertained. If you can’t hold their eyes, they will wander.”
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pickin’ on Nashville, the Kentucky Headhunters’ current lineup of the Young brothers, Martin and Doug Phelps, will perform a rare Nashville club show at the Basement East on Friday, June 28th. But while that record may be their most famous — it won them Album of the Year at the 1990 CMAs and a Grammy for Best Country Performance Duo/Group — the band is far from a one-album-wonder. In 2016, they released the studio album On Safari, and collaborated on a pair of LPs with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pianist Johnnie Johnson before his death in 2005. This year the Headhunters released the live album Live at the Ramblin’ Man Fair, recorded in England, where they played with Young’s son’s band, the hard-rockers Black Stone Cherry.
“The Kentucky Headhunters paved the way for that Southern sound that we’re still continuing to see coming out of the commonwealth,” says country-rock singer-guitarist Kyle Daniel, a native Kentuckian and disciple of the Headhunters. “They opened the gates for new country folks from Kentucky like Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and younger acts like myself. Now it seems that it’s the cool hip thing to be from here.”
Three decades on, artists are still paying tribute to the Headhunters, their breakout Pickin’ on Nashville, and that head-scratching hit “Dumas Walker.” At a 2017 Lexington, Kentucky, tour stop, contemporary superstar Eric Church, well aware of where he was playing that night, teed up a pair of songs from Bluegrass State artists. One was “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” written by Bill Monroe and not coincidentally covered by the Kentucky Headhunters. The other involved a slawburger, fries and a bottle of Ski.
“Everybody that ever played in a bar band, rock or country, know ‘Dumas Walker,'” says Young of the hit’s enduring appeal. “It wasn’t just a country song or a Southern rock song — it was an everybody song.”