There are a million good ways to launch a record album. Having a heart attack in public is not one of them. Nonetheless, that was the hand dealt Richard Young of the Kentucky HeadHunters only three months before the band’s new album, Songs From the Grass String Ranch, was scheduled for release.
Young was stricken May 6 in Oklahoma City, just as he was leaving the stage. It was scary then, but now he can laugh about it. “They put me in an ambulance, and it went zooming off,” he recounts. “I heard that John Anderson went on stage then and said, ‘How the hell do you follow that?’”
The 45-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist subsequently underwent two angioplasty procedures. He’s played only once with the band (which continues to tour) since then, but he expects to be back full-time soon. In the meantime, he’s more than willing to talk about the new album, which will be out Aug. 8.
Songs From the Grass String Ranch takes its name from the farm Young and his brother and fellow HeadHunter, Fred, grew up on in southwestern Kentucky. Young says his father, an English teacher who also raised horses, had the habit of “fixing” broken places in his wire fences with grass strings. Many years later, this habit led a “smart ass” neighbor to inquire of Young, “So, how’s things going down at the Grass String Ranch?” Young knew a song idea when he heard it.
Besides the two Young brothers, the HeadHunters consist of Greg Martin, Anthony Kenney and Doug Phelps.
Unlike earlier albums, which included jazzed up covers of country and pop standards, Grass String Ranch is all original HeadHunter songs. Young says they were discouraged from going the cover route again after “Singin’ the Blues,” their 1997 version of Guy Mitchell’s 1956 pop hit, failed to get much airplay. The song, which appeared on the BNA Records album Stompin’ Grounds, peaked at No. 70 on Billboard‘s country singles chart.
“What they forgot [at the label] was that times were different,” Young asserts. “People were looking for originality … [This time], we just said we’re going to write good songs, and we’re going to put our own thing together. Maybe a little of it was stubbornness; but I think most of it was just to make the point that we could write some good songs and didn’t have to lean on covers.”
The band members have joint credit for writing the songs, and that’s the way Young says it should be. “If I sat down and wrote a melody and lyric — or if someone else in the band did — I would hate to think that any of us would be so narrow as to think we’re the one thing that made it sound and feel the way it does … I don’t think the songs that I’ve written could ever be whole without these other boys. I’m sure they feel the same way. There’s no one person who writes everything.”
Even without covers, the selections on the new album are remarkably varied, ranging from the folkish and eerie western revenge narrative, “Back to the Sun,” to the calypso rhythms of “Dry Land Fish” to the swampy growling of “Louisianna Coco” to such smooth melodic ballads as “Too Much to Lose” and “The Dreamin’ Kind.”
Producing as well as writing it, the band completed the album long before they went looking for a label on which to issue it. “We realized if we went to a major label our opportunities would probably be similar to what we’d gone through [at BNA],” Young says, “even though the album was a good strong album. Being older and playing a different type of music and that sort of thing, our chances [of being signed by a major] were slim. So we decided to start looking for labels that were open-minded … We went to 38 independent labels … It took us about 18 months to find somebody we could settle on.”
Ultimately, they signed with Audium Entertainment, a new label that also has Ricky Van Shelton, Loretta Lynn, Daryle Singletary, Billy Swan and the Tractors on its roster.
The HeadHunters first surfaced on the country charts in 1989 with their cover of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine.” Never a favorite with the big radio stations (their highest charting single, “Oh Lonesome Me,” rose only to No. 8), the HeadHunters established a vivid image with their music videos and TV appearances. They won a Grammy and assorted Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards in 1990 and 1991. Then they went gradually into a decline.
Young says the band has kept busy by developing audiences in smaller markets. When it became apparent that BNA wasn’t going to make the band a hit at major country radio stations, Young says he asked the label to send free albums to the small radio outlets that don’t generally get serviced by the top country labels.
“That’s the way we’ve always kept going,” Young contends. “We would just talk our label into giving our albums to every radio station that normally never got anything. You would be really surprised to know how excited those people are to get something. They would get these albums and say, ‘Well, maybe they’re not our cup of tea, but they’ve sent us a record and we’re going to participate.’ Our ASCAP and BMI [royalty] statements would reflect that they were playing a lot of our songs on the air. … That works all over the United States and Canada. We’ve been able to use that tactic, and it’s kept us doing 90 to 100 shows a year ever since we started to flag a little bit back in the early ’90s.”
Young says that the first single from Songs From the Grass String Ranch probably will be “Too Much to Lose.” “It’s a ballad,” he says. “We’ve never done one [as a single]. So maybe the shock value of that will work.”