Walter Tunis: Kentucky HeadHunters range far and wide with their music

Contributing Music WriterJuly 12, 2012 

The Kentucky HeadHunters are Richard Young, left, Fred Young, Doug Phelps and Greg Martin.

BRAD WHEELER

The Kentucky HeadHunters and Confederate Railroad

8 p.m. July 13 at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center's New Barn, Interstate 75 at U.S. 25 (Exit 62), Renfro Valley. $20, $25, $35. 1-800-765-7464. Renfrovalley.com.

It's easy to resort to a kind of regional jingoism when discussing the Kentucky HeadHunters. After all, we're talking about a Grammy- winning ensemble due for induction next year into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame that boasts its home state in its name and a banner for its native Metcalfe County on its drum kit.

But give a listen to the fine mix of country, blues, boogie and more that the HeadHunters continue to make in a recording career of nearly 25 years. You will hear music that is lovingly unspoiled and respectful of the inspirations the band's songs so openly reflect.

Last weekend, I retreated from triple-digit Saturday temps to revisit a pair of HeadHunters albums from two very different eras.

The first was the last: 2011's Dixie Lullabies, which embraces all of the roots-savvy joy the HeadHunters' music has been known for over the years. Its sound is big, loose and electric. The country accents are there, but they enhance attitude more than atmosphere. For the most part, blues and soul rule the roost — sometimes simultaneously, as with the clean, pop-soul edge of Tumblin' Roses.

Best of all, this is a great record to play "spot the influence." For example, a generous dose of Slim Harpo blues as viewed through the fuzzy guitar filter of early ZZ Top highlights Boone's Farm Boogie. There also are at least two generous nods to early '70s Rolling Stones — the album-opening Dixie Lullaby (think Between the Sheets with screaming slide guitar) and Ain't That a Shame (a hint of Tumbling Dice with a lazy blues riff that snaps to life once barroom piano is thrown in).

Surprises? There are several. Little Miss Blues Breaker turns up the wattage to bring the heavy '70s guitar stamp of Mountain to mind. Doug Phelps even gives the vocals a bulldozing, Leslie West feel. And for Sugar Daddy, guitarist Greg Martin mounts a guitar attack that sounds like veteran British blues rockers Savoy Brown backed by a honky-tonk rhythm section.

The whole party package winds up not with a bang but with the light, relaxed and almost jazzy stride of Recollection Blues.

The other re-examined album was Authorized Bootleg, a live set issued by Mercury/Universal in 2009, although it showcases the HeadHunters at their commercial apex with a 1990 performance recorded at Cleveland's famed Agora Ballroom. Consider this a source recording of sorts. The tireless performance drive the band exhibits today, not to mention its stylistic ingenuity, can be traced to the very music it was producing at the time of this Cleveland show.

The HeadHunters introduced t hemselves to the world outside the Bluegrass by essentially electrifying tradition. Sure, the hit Dumas Walker (served on Authorized Bootleg with jovial harmonies that lead into a riotous sing-along) defined its amped-up country spirit. But boogiefied takes on Bill Monroe's Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine (which, despite its rockish revamping, nicely retains a bluegrass intent), Hank Williams' Honky Tonk Blues (fortified with plentiful guitar crunch) and especially the Don Gibson favorite Oh Lonesome Me (possibly the cheeriest version of this classic country weeper you are likely to hear) summarize the band's inherent charm.

Such leaps across genres and generations also sound refreshingly unassuming. The only thing that seems to outdistance the love of the music itself on these albums is the HeadHunters' hearty performance drive.

As the band heads into Renfro Valley on Saturday for a homecoming performance of sorts — and at a venue, no less, just down the road from the Hall of Fame — expect that spirit to be as exuberant, inviting and full of honest regional pride as ever.

Seeking Asylum?

Few bands brought post-grunge rock to the mainstream (or, at least, to rock radio) more assuredly than Soul Asylum.

Its commercial heyday was largely limited to the two years that 1992's album Grave Dancers Union and its succession of hit singles (Somebody to Shove and Runaway Train being the best) ruled the airwaves. Dave Pirner and co-guitarist Dan Murphy still man the band along with Guns 'N Roses' Tommy Stinson (formerly of The Replacements) on bass. Today's Soul Asylum will perform Grave-era hits with music from its new album Delayed Reaction (due out next week) on Saturday at Buster's Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester Street. (9 p.m. $22 in advance, $25 day of show. (859) 368-8871. Bustersbb.com.)

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