There are some people who just need to constantly be playing music, and the Kentucky Headhunters are those guys. So, when the pandemic halted touring, they retreated to the studio and crafted That’s a Fact Jack, a new album via BFD/Audium Nashville that fulfilled some bucket list desires for the veteran musicians. The band is sharing the new music on tour this fall and will finally make their debut on the Grand Ole Opry on December 4th.
“We only played eight shows last year and several of those were the drive-in kind,” Headhunter Richard Young tells SLN in a phone call from his Kentucky home. “Then February and March this year, we were all excited to get to go back out and every one of those shows moved to later this year or next year. We’ve been fortunate to get to play a whole bunch of them this year, which has made us feel better, but in February and March when we couldn’t do those, we looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to be a band here. We’ve got to do something!’ It’s like riding a bicycle it doesn’t take long to pick it back up, but you don’t want to get rusty. So, we decided that we would just go in the studio and do an album.”
Reuniting with longtime friend and collaborator David Barrick at Barrick Recording Studio, Glasgow, KY, the Headhunters poured their restless creative energy into a 12-song collection teeming with the skilled musicianship and feisty spirit fans have come to expect from Young, his brother Fred, cousin Greg Martin and longtime friend Doug Phelps.
“This is 53 years that Greg, Fred and I have played together,” says Young, recounting how they began performing together as Itchy Brother and then evolved into the Kentucky Headhunters in 1986. Their 1989 Mercury Records debut album, Pickin’ on Nashville, spawned the hits “Dumas Walker,” “Walk Softly on this Heart of Mine” and “Oh Lonesome Me.” Pickin’ on Nashville also earned the band a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group as well as Best New Vocal Group award from the ACM and Album of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year awards from the CMA.
“People in every generation find the Beatles and Elvis’s music. They are introduced from the past generation, and we’ve been very fortunate to have that happen to us,” Young says. “We call it the ‘Elvis Factor’ where people find out about you from others. There’s been a lot of kids [whose] parents drug them by their heels to go to see the Kentucky Headhunters because they didn’t know who we were. Now those kids bring all their pals to see us and the ones that have gotten older and had children, they introduce them to us and bring them to the show. It’s become somewhat of a family gathering.”
In recording the new album, Young says they took a different approach. “Normally we would get out in our old practice house there on the family farm and everybody would have cassette tapes or something that they’ve done, and we would work up the songs,” Young says. “We didn’t have that opportunity this time. We went in cold and thank goodness we work with David Barrick. We have a great working relationship and have for 20 years with him, so he knows what we’re like. In just three or four days we had it tracked and done and then we started mixing.”
The circumstances happening in the world influenced what was happening in the studio. “We learned a whole lot about each other on this album even though we’ve played together for almost 53 years,” Young says. “We had never been put in a situation where we were dealing with something that we couldn’t control, which was the virus. We went at this thing like, ‘Hey what’s something that we’ve never done that each one of us would like to do on the record?’ Doug and I sang the majority of them, but Fred, my brother wanted to sing a couple of songs and then [so did] Greg.”
Fred serves up a potent cover of Rick Derringer’s “Cheap Tequila” and also takes lead on the merseybeat-steeped “Cup of Tea.” “Fred wrote the lyrics to that about our first experience of going to London in 2016,” Young says. “It really does have a feel of a 60’s merseybeat song. Fred just wrote some terrific lyrics for it and portrayed it quite well. It’s fun.”
Phelps wrote and sings “Susannah.” “It is a well written song about musicians whether they became celebrities or whether they are just weekend warriors that go out in their van and play on the weekends in bars,” Young says. “He has a great insight obviously because it’s what we do, and Doug really handled the lyric well and the vocals on that song.”
It was Martin’s idea to resurrect their debut single for the new album. “Our first single came out in 1973 with Itchy Brother and Greg wanted to revisit that,” Young explains. “So we go back to when we were 18 or 19 years old and recut ‘Shotgun Effie,’ which was a song that Greg wrote about our grandma Effie Young who was somewhat of a legend in these areas.”
“How Could I” was originally intended for a Black Stone Cherry album. “I had written with my son’s band Black Stone Cherry for their second album. We had written around 50 songs and that song happened to be the one that didn’t make the pile,” Young recalls. “It’s just been sitting there and every once in a while I’d get that CD out and listen to it and I’d go, ‘Man that’s a good one! We need to do something with it.’ So lo and behold, we took it in the studio and said, ‘Guys let’s Headhunterize this thing and do it!’ We did and I think it came out wonderful. It sure made all of us feel good.”
Young says the pandemic and turmoil in our country seeped into his songwriting. “I write happy songs and party songs, but those two things combined was just a little bit too much to make me keep my mouth shut, so that’s where the lyrics came from,” Young says of “Watercolors in the Rain.” “I just wanted to say something to make everybody remember how fragile we are and that we never know what’s coming around the next corner or how long we have to be here. So, let’s try to enjoy each other and not fuss and fight and just get along.”
The title track, “That’s a Fact Jack,” was also inspired by the times. “I was a bit peeved off at that time, so I got into a little meaner frame of voice,” he says. “Those two songs basically show how we wrapped our arms around the situation that 2020 brought our way and we spoke out. Normally we don’t do things like that. We keep our minds on music and whatever people’s political or religious beliefs are, that’s theirs and we have ours. I go to the woods to pray. A lot of people think that’s kind of odd, but that’s part of God’s creation and I like to be there. Those two songs are very special to all of us, especially me because I just felt that I kept my mouth shut long enough as a singer/songwriter and I needed to say something not derogatory but something to make people wake the hell up.”
Young began writing “Let’s All Get Together and Fight” about families not being able to celebrate the holidays together during the pandemic last year. “My wife Cindy put some deer roast, some red potatoes, carrots, onions, French onion soup and all that good stuff in the crockpot and made some corn bread and that was going to be our Thanksgiving,” he says of their holiday last year.
When Young started reminiscing about holidays past, he couldn’t help but recall some family skirmishes. “When we get together, they’ll always be one or two people that have something to bring to the table because they haven’t seen everybody for a year or they’ll be two women get into it over because nobody ate one of their cakes, just little stuff. Every time we get together by the end of the night there’s some kind of little ole spree and I told Cindy, ‘This year we can’t even get together to fight,’ so I grabbed my acoustic guitar, sat at my desk and wrote the lyrics to that song because it came out of the suppression of not being able to be with family. Even though people have little squabbles, we all love each other in the end and want to be together and all of a sudden something stopped that.”
Whether writing songs or sharing anecdotes during an interview, Young is honest, open and exudes a warmth that that makes him feel like your new best friend. It’s the way he was raised. He remembers his mother cooking for reporters and record company executives on their Kentucky farm when the Headhunters first rocked the charts. Some New Yorkers who were supposed to stay for a few hours wound up hanging out for days, reluctant to leave his mom’s home cooking and the welcoming family vibe.
During the hour and a half interview, Young regales with colorful stories about their first trip overseas and explains why it took so many years for their Opry debut to happen. He candidly admits he once refused to fly until his son, Black Stone Cherry’s John Fred Young, booked them on a festival in Sweden and cajoled him into making the date. “My son said, ‘Dad, we’ve got you on this super big rock fest over in Sweden called Sweden Rocks and you guys are going to play on the main stage the same day Queen headlines.’ I didn’t even think about how cool it was, all I could think about was breaking out in a sweat and getting on that airplane,” Young confesses with a laugh. “I thought well they’ll probably have us playing at 11 o’clock in the morning and honey we played at 5:30 in front of 40,000 Scandinavian people!”
Young has fond memories of the audience and the other musicians. “All the acts went to this place that looked like a cruise ship out in the pine trees, a very secluded place and we stayed there for two or three days to do this concert,” he recalls. “You’d be sitting down eating and Brian May with Queen would say, ‘Would you pass the beverage please?’ It was like a dream come true for us.”
A current dream coming true is their upcoming Grand Ole Opry performance in December. “We’ve never played it. Bill Monroe wanted us to be on there after we started making him a bunch of money,” Young says, referring to the Headhunters scoring a big hit with “Walk Softly on the Heart of Mine,” written by Monroe and Jake Landers. “But Roy [Acuff] wouldn’t let us be on there. He said, ‘If they’re going to be on here they’re going to get a haircut.’ That’s the way he was.”
He also remembers Acuff giving him grief about his long hair when he ran into the Grand Ole Opry patriarch in the hall when Young was writing songs for Acuff Rose Publishing. “He stopped me and said, ‘Who are you boy?’ I said, ‘I’m Richard Young, Mr. Acuff. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ And he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m writing songs,’ and he said, ‘Well if you’re going to work here, you’re going to get a haircut,’ and just went on down the hall,” Young recalls. “I went and told Wesley [Rose] and he said, ‘Richard you have to look over Roy. He doesn’t care much for the Beatle hair.’ Having long hair was not always a cool thing back then.”
During his tenure at Acuff Rose, Young got some valuable advice from legendary songwriter Whitey Shafer, whose credits include George Strait’s “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and “That’s the Way Love Goes,” recorded by Merle Haggard and Johnny Rodriguez. “He literally drove around in a Cadillac with bullhorns on it,” Young recalls with a laugh. “Whitey was just who he was and he was the real deal. I was there in the room writing one day and he said, ‘Hey killer, come over here. I want to play you this new song I just wrote. He played me this song and it was beautiful. It was called ‘I Wonder Do You Ever Think Of Me’ [which became a No. 1 hit for Keith Whitley]. I asked him, ‘Whitey will I ever be able to write a song like that?’ And he said, ‘Why hell no,’ and it just crushed me. Whitey told me, ‘You’ll never be married five times. Get your ass back up there in Kentucky on that farm in that old house and write about what you know about.’ Three or four months later here comes ‘Dumas Walker.’ We just had to start writing about what we knew. I’ve had a lot of valuable lessons from different guys like that.”
These days Young is passing along what he’s learned. In addition to mentoring his son’s band Black Stone Cherry, he’s also managing an up-and-coming band the Georgia Thunderbolts. “I swear I must be glutton for punishment,” he laughs. “I swore that after I helped Black Stone Cherry get going good, I said, ‘Well I’ll probably never find another young band that suits my desires to help,’ and three years ago we were playing in Georgia, and I was in the back of the bus on the phone and computer doing Headhunter stuff and these kids kicked in. I had the window open and when this kid opened his mouth, I swear I went running out of that bus and got me a chair and watched their whole set. I felt like I had uncovered a time capsule from Southern rock of the early ’70s. These guys were the real deal.”
The Georgia Thunderbolts and the Kentucky Headhunters’ new albums released a week apart, which Young says has him so busy that “it’s got me running with my tongue hanging out.” But he wouldn’t have things any other way. After more than five decades, he’s still just as passionate about making music. “We’re still putting out albums and having a great time,” he says. “This is 53 years that Greg, Fred and I have played together. Right now the main thing is to have fun and enjoy being out on the road and making records. I’m so glad people out there still love what we do.”