Kentucky HeadHunters arise out of the ashes

Brian Wahlert, May 1997

The meteoric rise of the Kentucky HeadHunters is an incredible success story. In 1968, brothers Richard and Fred Young got together with their cousins Greg Martin and Anthony Kenney to form the band Itchy Brother.

After 13 years together, they went their separate ways, but by 1986, they were ready to reunite. Kenney didn't want to continue, so they got Doug Phelps, who had been playing with Martin in Ronnie McDowell's band, to replace him on bass.

Something was still missing, though, until Phelps's brother Ricky Lee joined the band on lead vocals.

After borrowing $4,500, they recorded an eight-song demo, which after some changes became their first Mercury Records album, "Pickin' on Nashville."

Not just any debut album, however - the 1990 Country Music Association Album of the Year! And that was just the tip of the awards iceberg. The HeadHunters were the Academy of Country Music's best new group in 1989, the CMA's best vocal group in 1990 and 1991 before Diamond Rio went on its winning streak, and they even won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal in 1990.

If the band's quick rise to success was surprising, its fall was astonishing. In April 1991, the month that their debut was certified double platinum, their second album, "Electric Barnyard," was released, and things went downhill from there.

The disc was less country and too hard-edged for country radio and many fans. As a result, it didn't sell half as many copies as its predecessor.

The Phelps brothers informed the rest of the band in a fax on June 2, 1992 they were leaving.

They formed Brother Phelps, a much more straight-ahead country duo, while the HeadHunters, with Mark Orr on lead vocals and Kenney on bass, continued to explore the blues-rock sound that they've always loved.

Neither side had much commercial success.

Now Doug's back with the band, which has a new album out on BNA, "Stompin' Grounds."

Richard Young, one of the band's founders, its rhythm guitarist, and a key songwriter, talked the day after the new album's release about the breakup and new album.

Ironically, it seems that while the HeadHunters were having the most success, they were also the least happy.

Young calls Ricky Lee Phelps the "dark side" of the band and says, "Man, from 1989 until June of 1992, it was always me pullin' one way and him pullin' the other. Let's be good, let's be nice, let's do this... and there's this other guy goin', 'Fuck everybody.'... It was just a bad time in our life, man. It was a very badtime."

Despite the conflicts, Young was still surprised to receive the fax. "When I look back on all that time, you know, the day they left the band, obviously, I wanted to kill 'em because I didn't know why."

At the time, Ricky Lee talked of wanting to go a different musical direction than the HeadHunters.

The HeadHunters could have just disbanded, but Young says that was never an issue. "We couldn't just lay down and die because what if when the Phelps boys left that Richard and Fred and Greg had just said, 'Well, I guess that's the end of the HeadHunters'? Now we wouldn't have the HeadHunters today. So our whole deal was to keep the band alive and hope that someday..."

That someday, the day of Doug's return, didn't come for 3 1/2 years, and although the HeadHunters faded from the country limelight during that time, "I wouldn't change any of it really," Young says, because "so much good stuff came out of it," stuff that most country fans weren't even aware of.

Sure, there was the unsuccessful country album, "Rave On!!" and then being bounced by Mercury.

But there was also a collaboration with R&B legend Johnny Johnson, "That'll Work."

"There's no need to tell you a lie," Young says. "I didn't grow up gettin' off on the country music scene...We grew up playin' rock and roll, and we wanted to meet Led Zeppelin, and we wanted to meet Cream and all those people... I got off when I met Eric Clapton. I don't do that meetin' country artists. They're like me. They're like my neighbors. The people that I grew up listenin' to. I mean, golly, George Jones is fantastic, but he reminds me of my uncle."

So recording with Johnson was a huge thrill for the band. "Johnny Johnson was Chuck Berry's original piano player," Young says. "And he wrote songs like 'Johnny B. Goode' and 'Maybelline' with Chuck and all this stuff. But he was one of our heroes growin' up as kids. He played on everybody's albums, Clapton's '24 Nights,' all the Chuck Berry albums, Rod Stewart stuff, the Rolling Stones, and all of a sudden you're sittin' here and you're goin', 'They want us to do an album with him?'"

Perhaps the band's biggest thrill came July 4, 1995 when the band played a concert with Johnson in Central Park. "Everybody in New York City in Manhattan just walked to the park, and for the first time in our career we were sittin' here playin' for more people from foreign nationalities than we were from our own. And it was fantastic, man! So Garth Brooks is gonna have a ball when he goes and does that (this coming August). I saw on TV, they said 'first time ever a country artist plays there' I don't think so!"

"So it was fun to go off and make a blues album, which I don't think we'd have been able to done with the Phelps boys, but we could do it with Mark Orr. I don't think we'd have gotten to play with Johnny Johnson in Central Park in New York City two years ago July fourth with the Phelps boys," Young says.

Still, something was missing, and all the parties involved knew it. "For three years, I've got on stage, man, and the vibe wasn't there for me either. Just like it wasn't for you listenin' to it," he says.

"It was a dumb thing for this to all happen in the first place, for the split to happen. And the Phelps boys, they were burning up videos and they were on the radio, but they weren't selling any records. The HeadHunters were over here playin' July fourth in Central Park, but we weren't sellin' alot of the records...By 1995 it was obvious that Mark was wantin' to do somethin' else because I'm sure he was terribly tired of havin' to rehash or try to sing 'Dumas Walker' and that sort of thing because he's an R&B singer. And that's what he's supposed to be doin'. And so I called up Doug Phelps in August of '95 and I said, 'Doug, you know, we'd like to invite you back to the band, you and your brother.' And he and I talked for a few minutes, and he thought it was a good idea."

Judging by the results, HeadHunters fans would have to agree. Even though Ricky Lee Phelps chose not to rejoin, "Stompin' Grounds" is certainly their most consistently good album since "Pickin' on Nashville."It seems to combine the great party feel of the best HeadHunters music with the more traditional country elements of Brother Phelps's work.

Young explains the Phelps' influence by saying, "A lot of what seemed was goin' on with those guys was things that was goin' on in the practice house that never got on a record. When the HeadHunters were rehearsing, our favorite thing to do was not rehearse and play every Beatles song we knew. So, I'm sure a lot of that influence probably started in the HeadHunters."

"If I could go back and change the way things happened in 1992, it wouldn't be right because too many good things came out of that. See? God, man, I wish I could go back to 1991 and slap someone in the band and make him a different person. You know? But I can't do that. But then I'll turn around and look on the wall, and I'll see a picture of me and Chuck Berry and Johnny Johnson, and I'll go, 'That wouldn't ever have happened if I hadn't been through all that.' And I'm a real firm believer in the spiritual stuff, man. I really think that we kinda got the raw end of the deal, and I think the good Lord just said, 'Let these boys survive.'"

Survive, they have. Like the mythical phoenix, the Kentucky HeadHunters have risen from the ashes to fly again, hopefully back atop the country charts.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •