“We’re a lifestyle band,” says the Kentucky Headhunters‘ Richard Young. “We get up in the morning drinking coffee and living music. And our day is about music.”
This devotion to art is richly demonstrated in the Headhunters’ latest album, Dixie Lullabies. Like its antecedents, this collection of 14 band-penned songs is an engaging blend of musical styles and attitudes.
In some songs, as might be expected from a rock band, the guys are in hot pursuit of love (or something like it). In others, they’re nursing the wounds that love can — and usually does — inflict.
Indeed, one of the songs — “Tumblin’ Roses” — dares to dwell on a man’s reaction to his partner’s descent into menopause.
The Headhunters trace their ancestry back to 1968, when Young, his brother Fred and their cousins Greg Martin and Anthony Kenney formed the Itchy Brothers.
Although the band would later flirt with fame via major record deals that never quite materialized, it didn’t hit the big time until 1989 when it swept over Music Row with the album Pickin’ on Nashville, an exotic fusion of Southern rock, country and bluegrass.
Not only did the album spawn such mixed-genre country hits as “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” “Dumas Walker” and “Oh Lonesome Me,” it also went on to sell more than 2 million copies and was the key to winning the Headhunters a Grammy and vocal group of the year awards from the Country Music Association in 1990 and ’91.
That period, however, also saw the phenomenal rise of Garth Brooks and other so-called “hat acts” such as Clint Black and Alan Jackson. Subsequent Headhunters albums failed to match the success of their first one, either in sales or chart prominence of singles.
With its strong melodies and poetic, easy-to-hear lyrics, Dixie Lullabies may help the band regain some lost ground in the country sector.
The current edition of the band features Young on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, his brother Fred on drums, Martin on lead guitar and Doug Phelps on lead vocals and bass. Kenney, although no longer a band member, co-wrote one of the new songs.
Young says the Headhunters were encouraged to record a new album by his son, John Fred Young of the Black Stone Cherry rock group, and members of Jamey Johnson‘s band, with whom the Headhunters toured last year.
Once the band resolved to record, the members virtually took up residence in a ramshackle, amenities-starved structure they call the “Practice House” near the Youngs’ farm in Edmonton, Ky.
“We wrote through September and October and the first part of November [of 2010],” Young explains. “Then we took off for Thanksgiving, and we didn’t really go back into the Practice House until [co-producer] Wade Battle came up to help us record.
“We brought in an electrician and put a couple of wall plugs in and started moving things around. On the 27th of December, we actually moved into the Practice House. Lord! It started snowing. It waited until after Christmas, and then it all broke loose.”
In spite of the fierce snow storms that ensued, the band kept on recording — and 11 days later, it had an album.
There’s a surprising degree of tenderness and intimacy in the new project that sets it apart from the band’s earlier hard-partying efforts.
“Great Acoustics,” sung from a woman’s point of view, dwells gently on the first signs of a love affair that’s about to fracture. “Roll on Little Pretty” takes up the old folk-music theme of a man reluctantly leaving a woman for her own good.
“Just Another Night,” which the band wrote for Sheryl Crow but never pitched to her, is a cinematic view of a small town in which a lot happens but nothing much changes. “Recollection Blues” has the dreamy pace and sounds of a love song from the 1920s.
“The Headhunters have always been a little deeper than what we would allow ourselves to show,” Young says, “because we were a blues/rock band growing up for 20 years.
“I guess we’re a lot more shy than people think we are,” he continues. “It’s kind of been hard for us to open our chest up, so to speak, and show our heart. But in the [Practice House] there, we were able to write those songs and record them. We always chickened out [before] when we got to the studio. We’d say, ‘Aw, we’d better not do that. [We'll] do the old footstompers.’”
“Tumblin’ Roses” really has no counterpart in the Headhunters catalog — or probably in anyone else’s — since menopause is seldom the stuff of lyrics.
Although the 56-year-old Young chuckles as he explains how it evolved, the song is not in the least humorous since it sincerely mourns the loss of love as it used to be.
Asked if someone suggested the topic to him, Young snaps, “No, I’ve been living it. My wife woke up one night and jerked off all of her clothes, and I thought it was going to be fun. But she said, ‘Grab something and fan me.’ From that moment on for a few years — thank God, it’s better now — I was miserable. And I know she was, too.
“A lot of people listen to that song, and they think it’s about losing your partner [to death]. But it’s not about losing them. It’s about them turning into this other animal you’re not familiar with. They can’t help it, but you can’t help them being that way. … It takes a lot of patience and that sort of thing.
“My son helped write it. He lived through it with his mother, too. He totally got it. … It was neat because I was sharing [the experience] with my 25-year-old son [who] lives in the house with us. So he got the brunt of it as a young man — which was totally unfair because he’s got to go through it twice.”
Young says women hear “Tumblin’ Roses” as a sad, romantic story — which is fine with him. It’s safer.
“There are these two girls we know from Wisconsin,” he says. “They just loved that song. ‘Oh, it’s so sad,’ they said. And I sat them down one day on the bus and told them what it was about. They gave me a cussin’! They were mad. They said I blew it for them.”
And what does his wife think of the song?
“She loves it,” he reports. “She said, ‘You sing like a man who speaks from experience.’”
There’s still plenty of rock-star swagger in the album, though, from the title cut through such wall-shakers as “Boone’s Farm Boogie,” “Sugar Daddy,” “Little Miss Blues Breaker,” “Little Angel” and “Ain’t That a Shame.”
Two of the songs — “In a Perfect World” and “Just Believe” — take a step back from personal matters to look at larger issues of human existence.
“We have a bad habit of bouncing [musically] like a ball in a pinball machine,” says Young. “We’re apt to be doing a blues album one time, and the next time we’ll do kind of a country-rock/Southern-rock thing. We have such a wide love of music. … I get a thrill out of seeing what Greg and Fred and Doug are going to do. You can write all the great songs you want to, but if they don’t have the Headhunters’ magic to them, they’re just paper.”
To Young, a band is a sacred organism — not an arbitrary assemblage of interchangeable players. And he is especially proud of what the Headhunters have grown into.
“Everybody in the band is such a stylist,” he asserts. “Sometimes I just get so excited. I’ll sit and listen to this album and have a couple of beers and think, ‘That damn Greg! How did he think to do that?’ They still amaze me. It’s like Christmas every time we write a song, and if it were up to me, we’d probably do an album every six months because I really love listening to what they do.”