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Kentucky Headhunters

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Although the world first discovered The HeadHunters in 1989, the unique style of the HeadHunters' music started to come together about 30 years ago in the rolling hill country of south Kentucky, just two hours drive up from Nashville.

It was there that Greg Martin, Richard Young, and his younger brother, Fred, and cousin Anthony Kenney first got together to play.

When the Youngs first became interested in music in the mid-1960s, their grandmother, Effie Young, used to let them use her converted farmhouse to practice in.

The boys found an antique record player with 78s by Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roy Acuff and the Carter Family. Like all HeadHunter music, the record player still plays and the house still stands tall.

Richard and Fred were exposed to an eclectic range of music while growing up. Their father, a schoolteacher, was fascinated by the rural American heritage songs written by the likes of Stephen Foster, while their mother turned them on to the blues by listening to radio broadcasts out of Chicago.

Greg, on the other hand, was first introduced to country music by his Dad and uncles and was further influenced by early rock 'n' roll records borrowed from his older brother.

Anthony, the son of a local rockabilly star, grew up in a household full of Elvis and Carl Perkins, which naturally set the stage for his interest in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Mark Orr came from the musical environs of a home filled with Ray Charles and Harry Belafonte, his parents' favorites. He became aware of rock and blues from his older brother and sister.

The Phelps Brothers, Doug and Ricky Lee, sons of a rural preacher, first cut their musical teeth on gospel music found in the church choir. That foundation, coupled with an interest in a variety of music, led them to their meeting with Greg, Fred and Richard playing in the HeadHunters.

Though country music was in their blood, the boys' deepest passions became rooted in otherworldly sounds. When Greg came down from Louisville with a silver Gretsch and an armful of records by Cream, NRBQ, the Rolling Stones, Ten Years After, Bob Dylan, Moby Grape and Led Zeppelin, the musical genius of what is now the Kentucky HeadHunters came together.

Calling themselves Aftermath, the cousins played "Crossroads" at a local talent contest and won. A career was born.

During the 1970s, the band, having changed their name to Itchy Brother after Fred's favorite cartoon character, became a hot item on the southern roadhouse circuit. Despite the addition of a sensational vocalist, Mark Orr, and interest from several major labels, a deal was never signed. It was the same old story: right place at the wrong time.

The boys all went on to land Nashville-based country music jobs either writing for Acuff-Rose Publishing, or playing with established country acts.

True to their roots, the guys frequently got together at the old practice house to jam and play whenever possible. After years of writing and touring, Richard, Fred, and Greg decided to to reconvene at the practice house just for kicks.

Greg had met a bass player, Doug Phelps, and the four clicked. Doug convinced his brother Ricky Lee to come up and take a shot at singing with the band. They played "Honky Tonk Blues" and knew right away something special was happening.

The HeadHunters originally set out to play local gigs and host a live monthly radio program, "The Chitlin Show," involving various local and national artists. During the summer of 1989, they went on to record and album of eight songs with the intention of selling copies at their shows, but Nashville record executives heard about the famous "pink tape" and realized that they were missing out on something.

A showcase performance was arranged for Nashville record labels, many of whom thought the band played too loud and walked out. The band was told: "If you were in New York or Los Angeles they could sign you as a rock act, but you don't fit Nashville."

The HeadHunters went back to their original plans to release the album independently until they got a chance call from Harold Shedd, the head of A&R for Mercury Records in Nashville. Shedd liked the band so much he released the self-produced "homemade tape" with two additional tracks as "Pickin' On Nashville."

Nobody expected the record to break all sales records for a debut release by a country band. "When we sold 70,000 we were delighted because it meant we could make another one," Richard Young recalls, "but then a week later it was up over 125,000 and we thought 'What's going on here?'"

The band wasn't the only one asking that question. The HeadHunters turned Nashville upside down with their blues rock edge to country music, and sent the other labels scrambling to reproduce the sound. To this day, some of the most frequently-used musical elements on country radio and video were first pioneered by the HeadHunters.

The band's second album, "Electric Barnyard," was another musical step out for the HeadHunters. Richard Young used a Beatles analogy to explain the creative jump the band made from "Pickin'" to the second album, "It was like the difference between 'Rubber Soul' and 'Sgt. Pepper'."

After the Electric Barnyard Tour, the Phelps brothers left to form their own group, Brother Phelps. Few bands could survive such a major personnel change, but the HeadHunters knew exactly what to do. They got on the phone to old bandmates Anthony Kenney and Mark Orr, and reformed the original lineup. The enthusiasm accompanying that reunion translated directly to a supercharged third album by the HeadHunters called, "Rave On!!!".

The HeadHunters then made a radical move for their most recent album, recording pure blues-rock music with legendary rock 'n' roll pioneer Johnnie Johnson. This transitional work provides the key to understanding the musical past and future of the Kentucky HeadHunters. "There aren't six guys in Nashville who can sing the way Mark Orr sings," said Young. "Then when we made the Johnnie Johnson album we realized that this was the kind of music we'd always wanted to make from the beginning."

With the HeadHunters reunited with original members, and the Phelps brothers making records on their own, this is a music business story with an unusually upbeat beginning.

The Kentucky HeadHunters are "Still Pickin'" and God only knows what will happen next.

-- John Swenson

Kentucky HeadHunters Band History This history was written by John Swenson and appeared in the liner notes of Still Pickin' Note: The Heads released "Stompin' Grounds," in 1997 and Doug Phelps rejoined the group when Mark Orr left. In 2000, Songs From The Grass String Ranch and the video "Too Much To Lose" have taken the music scene by surprise.. Many new people are listening to the Kentucky HeadHunters since seeing the video on CMT or Great American Country

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