The Kentucky HeadHunters
Opening: The Artimus Pyle Band. 8:30 April 1 at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, 2380 Richmond St. in Mt. Vernon. $30, $35. 1-800-765-7464. Renfrovalley.com, Kentuckyheadhunters.com.
Listening to rhythm guitarist Richard Young as he outlines the false starts, misadventures and sheer resolve that led to the newest Kentucky HeadHunters album, “On Safari,” is akin to taking a road trip. But hitting the highway has always been a favored activity of this eclectic, electric and thoroughly distinctive Metcalfe County-bred outfit.
Some of the originals date back years. Some of the covers reach back decades. But studio work on the combined selection was eventually placed on the back burner so the band could release “Meet Me in Bluesland,” a second collaborative album with famed Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson. The record was cut in 2003 but wasn’t released until 2015, a full decade after Johnson’s death. But with “Meet Me in Bluesland” finally out, focus shifted to the HeadHunters’ own album, which the band planned to cut in the Glasgow studio of veteran engineer David Barrick.
Then real life intervened with the death of James Howard Young, father of the guitarist and of drummer Fred Young.
We had three days left in the studio when Fred called me and said, ‘Man, let’s just go in there and do something. Daddy wouldn’t want us to sit around and mope.’
Richard Young, Kentucky HeadHunters rhythm guitarist
“After the smoke cleared on ‘Meet Me in Bluesland,’ we said, ‘OK, now it’s time to get back to just a straight HeadHunters record,” Richard Young said. “We had made plans through the winter last year and dabbled a little bit with the songs and planned on meeting at the Practice House (the band’s longtime Metcalfe County rehearsal space) in April to work on it. We never want to overcook anything we do, so we planned on going into the studio for five days to cut the album.
“The week we were going to rehearse, Daddy passed away. Needless to say, not just Fred and I, but the whole band (completed by lead guitarist Greg Martin and vocalist/bassist Doug Phelps) was devastated. We had three days left in the studio when Fred called me and said, ‘Man, let’s just go in there and do something. Daddy wouldn’t want us to sit around and mope.’ Normally, that would be me saying that, but this time it was Fred saying, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ We knocked that album out in three days, and the songs are all one takes.”
The original works — including “Big Time,” “Jukebox Full of Blues” and especially “God Loves a Rolling Stone” — posses all the elements of classic HeadHunters material: country sensibilities enhanced by Southern-leaning soul and rock ’n’ roll, a sound that could have been lifted off any number of vintage albums for the Capricorn label during the early 1970s.
That period extended to a pair of cover tunes, “Caught in a Dream,” from the 1971 Alice Cooper album, “Love It to Death,” and “Way Down Yonder,” the title tune of a 1974 album by Charlie Daniels.
“Fred loved ‘Caught in a Dream’ as far back as the early ’70s,” Richard Young said. “We never played it out on the road, but we would try it in the Practice House. Fred has always wanted to record that song. He thought we could twist it into a Southern rock thing, so he brought the tape into the studio and said, ‘I want to do this now.’ The Young boys almost had a wrestling match over the five or six notes in the song that set up the chorus. But that’s the way Fred and I are.”
Cover songs have been an integral part of the band’s repertoire since it began performing as the Kentucky HeadHunters in 1986 (as shown in its hot-wired version of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” which became a hit in 1989) and before that in an earlier group incarnation called Itchy Brother, beginning in 1968.
But the opposite also has been true. The Band covered the HeadHunters’ tune “Back to Memphis” on its 1996 album, “High on the Hog,” (the song should not be confused with “Going Back to Memphis,” the Chuck Berry composition that The Band cut in 1973).
“Levon (Helm) sang it along with (Rick) Danko, and Garth Hudson played sax on The Band’s version. It was just wonderful. We wrote that for the first album we did with Johnnie Johnson (1993’s ‘That’ll Work’) but re-recorded the song for ‘Meet Me in Bluesland’ because we wanted to make it more rock-oriented.
“Actually, The Band smoked our first version, so we wanted to up the ante on the next one.”
The HeadHunters perform Saturday at Renfro Valley on a bill with The Artimus Pyle Band, the long-running ensemble led by the onetime drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“We’ve found a lot of the Skynyrd folks have never seen the HeadHunters,” Young said. “So now they get to see us, while our fans get to see Artemis do his thing. I was a little leery about this matchup when we first started to do it, but I really cherish these dates now.”