STANDING IN A MEADOW ON THE banks of a spring-fed creek that nicely answers the question “Why live out here in the sticks?” the Kentucky HeadHunters sure do look like a country hand. And when they speak about life here in the Wisdom, Ky., “holler” where the band was born, they definitely talk country. But hear them play some kick-amp electric blues or their modified, modernized bluegrass, and they sure sound like rock-and-rollers. Which is why some folks are wondering how these five country music renegades have found a home on Nashville’s top-hits charts. Explains HeadHunter drummer Fred Young: “We’re a reaction to the trend toward bladder-trouble ballads in country music.”
Or something like that. Suffice to say that by grafting sweet-as-honey-suckle country harmonies and knowing backwoods humor onto hard-rock riffs that would make Bon Jovi jump, the Kentucky HeadHunters have carved their own country niche. The band’s 1989 debut album, Pickin’ on Nashville, included an all-electric, hard-rock version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” that even made the crusty 79-year-old legend himself smile. Monroe wasn’t the only one: The album has sold nearly 2 million copies and earned more country awards than a John Deere could tow.
Now the group’s second album, Electric Barnyard, pushes the hayseed envelope inside out. Brimming with laughs, screaming guitars, lilting harmonies and quirky song selections (including “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” and Norman Green-baum’s “Spirit in the Sky”), the album hit home with both country purists and college-age rock lovers and sold half a million copies its first week in the stores. Monroe promptly invited the group to appear with him at the Grand Ole Opry and to become the first rock-oriented group ever to plug in at his annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in September. Monroe did add a warning: “Don’t let that music get too stout and cover up them beautiful harmonies.”
The hard rock in the HeadHunters’ hybrid sound comes from two pairs of brothers and a country cousin. Fred Young, 32, and brother Richard, 36, of Wisdom, Ky., teamed up with Greg Martin, 38, a guitar-playing cousin from Glasgow, Ky., more than 20 years ago. The Youngs’ parents—father James, 68, is a retired schoolteacher with a taste for Gershwin and Chopin; mother Gwendolyn, 60, is a homemaker who likes boogie-woogie and blues—allowed the boys to play any music they liked as long as they played it upcreek in an abandoned family farmhouse. “So’s they could keep an eye on us,” says Richard.
Legendary in Wisdom, the Youngs’ “practice house” was built 100 years ago overlooking an ancient Indian campsite where Richard still finds buried arrowheads and other artifacts. With the house as their home base, the Youngs and cousin Martin began bouncing through southern rock bands hoping, without success, to land a recording contract.
The HeadHunters emerged in 1986 when the three hooked up with vocalist Ricky Lee Phelps, 37, and his brother Doug, 30, a bass player. The Phelpses had grown up in tiny Cardwell, Mo., sons of a Pentecostal preacher and his wife. “Play in’ in church was my regular gig from when I was 7,” says Doug. “Every Phelps I know of plays and sings. My grandma’s written well over a thousand songs. She’s just been settin’ on ’em all her life.”
Frustrated in their attempts to sing together in a country band, the Phelpses began commuting to Wisdom on weekends to jam with the Youngs and Martin at the practice house. No one gave much notice to the music until 1988, when a Virginia businessman lent the HeadHunters enough money to record a demo tape. Released virtually as was by Mercury Records, Pickin’ on Nashville won this year’s Grammy for best country vocal performance by a group and album-of-the-year honors from the Country Music Association. “Funny thing is,” says Richard, “every other label in Nashville turned that demo down. Ain’t that somethin’?”
Now that success has finally come, the HeadHunters are guarding it like the family farm. Most of the group steer clear of drinking, and only Richard still pops open a beer now and then. With two albums on the country charts, they plan on spending more than 100 days on the road this year, traveling in a tour bus that used to belong to Elvis. Martin, Richard and Doug leave behind wives and one child each. Ricky Lee, who has walked the aisle three times, is between receptions at the moment. Fred has a steady girl back in the holler, where the HeadHunters are local heroes.
And that, of course, is a welcome change for a band whose rural roots and rock-and-roll style seemed a strange mix to country fans at first. “Used to be, we were the weirdos,” says Fred of those early times. “We walk in a truck stop nowadays, and the old timers say, ‘Them boys, they awright.
STEVE DOUGHERTY in Wisdom