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The Kentucky HeadHunters
Blame it on the shutdown. When the Kentucky Headhunters watched their 2020 dates go up in smoke, they knew with or without live dates, they’re a band… and bands have to play. After a half century of coming together at Mama Effie’s Practice House, first as Itchy Brother, then the Kentucky Headhunters, as well as watching next generation hard rockers Black Stone Cherry come into their own sound, the idea of not making music wasn’t something they could stomach.
“We’re a band,” says guitarist/vocalist Richard Young. “We play. When all our shows got cancelled, we decided we were gonna go up to the Practice House and play. Then we figured we might as well go into the studio, but instead of having an agenda or some idea of ‘what’ was this supposed to be, we all looked at each other and went, ‘Well, what do you do?’
“No discussions, no trying to be something. Just ‘What do you want to play?’”
Indeed, That’s A Fact, Jack may be the Kentucky Headhunters most coherent, yet eclectic album ever. Whether the creeping blues-burner “Gonna Be Alright,” the sinewy, sensuous “Susannah,” the slow turn reckoning “We Belong Together” or the dynamic minimalist reflection “Watercolors In the Rain,” the Heads continue sowing the good vibes, the better guitar sounds and enough groove to keep the room rocking.
From the first drum crack and building pound of “That’s A Fact, Jack,” there’s a plea to come to our senses, drill down and find ways to come together. That notion of coming together informs the hip-checking shuffle of “How Could I,” a more personally beseeching song of apology and fixing it with some searing guitar and a tumbling backbeat.
Blame it on England. When the Kentucky Headhunters were growing up, the rock & roll coming across “the pond” – hard rock bands Led Zeppelin, CREAM, Cactus and the Rolling Stones, as well as the Beatles, Kinks and Faces – made its way to Edmonton, Kentucky where Richard and Fred Young and their cousin Greg Martin were raised. It also permeated the Missouri bootheel, where Doug Phelps, who was born in Leachville, Arkansas, grew up.
“Susannah” was first inspired from the passing of one of Doug’s long time musical influences and eventual friend, Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist for The Band. “He and I were both born in Arkansas and I always felt a connection to him because of that,” he says. “It hit me pretty hard when I heard of Levon’s passing and I just kept hearing him sing ‘Ophelia’ in my head. That led me to singing ‘Susannah’ in its place and once that started, the story fell into place for me and I couldn’t write the lyrics down fast enough! It became a song about the special women that love and support their ‘music man’ and how they understand what it is that drives us.”
Something about the mods, the rockers, the twist of the classic American blues of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters got under those boys’ skins. Even during their multi-platinum dominance of country music, winning Country Music Association, Academy of Country Music and American Music Awards, the Headhunters were always more a rock band with rural roots than a country band with big amps.
“I didn’t fly. I was scared,” laughs Richard Young. “So even when things were rocking, we didn’t go to England, or Europe, and anywhere that needed a plane. We had the music, and that was what England was to us.
“But when Black Stone Cherry took off over there, John Fred (his son) set it all up for us to go. We went over to Scandinavia and played SwedenRock first, opening for Queen… It was like we, the Kentucky Headhunters, had made it. Decades later, there we were on this rock festival two bands down the bill from Queen.
“Then we got to England, loaded into Sprinter vans – and when we pulled up at the Borderline, there was a line of people around the block!
“We’d never made it to England, the place we pulled so much influence from, but our music had.”
Blame it on Carnaby Street. When London was swinging and Itchy Brother was playing their heavy rock/blues around the American South and almost getting signed to Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records, the future Grammy-winners were sopping up the long-legged birds, hip-hugger fashions and sense of a psychedelic grooviness that is more present on That’s A Fact, Jack than at any time in one of the most far-ranging and eclectic careers in American music.
“When we got to England, people were holdin’ up cards that said, ‘Stumblin’,’” Young marvels. “They even knew the Johnnie Johnson records we’ve made together. They knew all the blues stuff, the rock & roll stuff. It was magical… And since we’d never been there when it was all happening, Fred wrote ‘Cup of Tea,’ which is all about what that era was all about. It’s 1968 and Carnaby Street and all those girls and bands and innocence.”
The Merseybeat-steeped “Cup” draws on a time long gone, but somehow feels fresh and sparkling in the innocence of drummer Fred Young’s raw-boned vocal delivery. The drummer brother also contributes a full-frontal take on Rick Derringer’s “Cheap Tequila,” equally redolent of a time when rock was wild, untamed and elegantly squalid.
Blame it on nostalgia. But only the most frisky, vital sense. When the Heads converged on Barrick Record Studio in Glasgow, Kentucky, they were amazed at how fluid and fun these sessions were. Young admits, “To be honest, this band plays everything… and we just decided to play everything we loved. T.J. Lyle from the (Georgia) Thunderbolts was up visiting. We got to writing lyrics to some of these songs.
“Like ‘How Could I,’ it’s about the generations and how life goes. I was this old cat up at the Practice House writing with Black Stone Cherry, remembering Itchy Brother and the girls coming around – and how some of those girls became our wives. It all goes ‘round, don’t it?
“And when we decided to just play what we loved, Fred wanted Greg to sing ‘Cheap Tequila,’ because he has that Rick Derringer kinda voice. But Greg wanted to do something else. ‘Cheap Tequila’ was one of those songs we all just loved, so Fred did it. But Greg said, ‘If we’re doing this, then I want to sing ‘Shotgun Effie.’ I wrote those lyrics and we did it in ’73 and I wanna do it again now.’”
“Shotgun Effie,” with its seek-and-destroy guitar riff and hammer down drumming, was Itchy Brothers very first single. Still in high school, it was the first record the boys put out, and nearly fifty years later, this raging ode to a silver-haired leadfoot, Grandmother Effie, is every bit as raucous and fun.
Blame it on semantics. Heck, blame it on a world that’s slightly off its kilter. Wildly apolitical, the Headhunters have always been about spreading the love, the joy, the come together. Whether it was a heavy take on Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine,” a torqued up read on Cargill Henson’s “Skip-A-Rope,” or a psyche-blues spin on Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky,” the Headhunters continue to lift folks up, lighten their load and bring people together.
“Growing up in a hippie nation, growing up with all that British music, it was a great time to be learning all this stuff. We’ve always been positive musicians who were influenced by the hippie coalition of the ‘60s. ‘Gonna Be Alright’ is a keep your chin up and care about each other track, ‘That’s a Fact, Jack’ is something your Dad’d say about getting on with it, because that’s a part of getting through where we are now. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, people were people and politics didn’t define you, what was in your heart did. That’s what it’s really about.
“So, this album, beyond all the fun of just getting in there and playing, is a statement for our society in these times, and an offering of what we think people need right now. You know, in Europe, we’re played on Planet Rock and classic rock stations. They don’t even think about what we might be labeled here, they take us on the music. There’s a lot for all of us to take from that.
“Don’t worry about the labels, man. How’s it make you feel? If you ask me, this is modern society Southern rock & roll. It’s for the times and the people. It’s all the influences and all the things we love, all the things with no borders or worrying about what doesn’t fit.”
Now That’s A Fact, Jack.