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The night before our Saturday-afternoon talk with the Kentucky HeadHunters, the boys played a gig in Baltimore, Maryland. It was the kind of show their growing cadre of fans has come to expect: energy to rival or best any hormone-driven thrash punktet; massive doses of homemade, hot-from-the-barbecue Southern rock; plus an eclectic mix of bored-out covers.
The crowd stayed on its feet for the duration. There were grizzled veterans of the Southern-rock Seventies, chaw-bearin' cowboys, kids with black tee shirts. All ears would ring for days after.
In the early morning hours following the raucous show, the old concert house the HeadHunters had just brought down burned down. Went up in flames. Are the Kentucky HeadHunters really that hot?
The answer, of course, is no. But the coincidence--a venerable entity's sudden inflammation--aptly reflects the effect that the Kentucky HeadHunters produced in 1990.
The five hillboys--brothers Ricky Lee and Doug Phelps, brothers Richard and Fred Young and their cousin Greg Martin--are relishing every moment of their sudden celebrity, to be sure. But Nashville's siren call won't be enough to pry them from their old Kentucky home. The title of that fire-breathing debut disc Pickin' on Nashville underscores their arm's-length approach to the town behind the Pine Curtain.
"Why move?" asks rhythm guitarist and unofficial spokeshead Richard Young. "A real interesting fact is that the farther we stay away from that town, the more they want us. But if you take us away from home, you take the music from us." Home for three fifths of the mountain tribe continues to be Metcalfe County, Kentucky.
The Young brothers, Richard and Fred (he's the flyweight drummer with the oversize muttonchops and coonskin hat) first met their cousin Greg Martin when all three were in junior high school.
"Here comes Greg walking over a hill, carrying a guitar case," Richard Young remembers. "Next thing you know, we were jamming in the school kitchen." The boys found heroes in the Beatles, Humble Pie, and Cream; then it was on to Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and the Lovin' Spoonful. Old blues and the Motown sound were also an influence on the Kentuckians.
"Ain't many got the toe jam that Aretha Franklin did then," Richard observes.
Along with cousin Anthony Kenney, the teenagers formed Itchy Brother. It was 1968. All had played since they could hold a guitar or beat up a drum, and they particularly liked the songs of the South. The boys put a spit-shine on their fledgling style in an old two-story white-frame building given to them by their grandmother, Effie Young. The "practice house" remains their rehearsal venue and sanctuary.
Over its thirteen-year run, Itchy Brother came close to the big show several times, including a deal with Swan Song Records, then owned by Led Zeppelin. It didn't pan out.
"By the time we got to where we were good enough to think about a deal, the Southern rock thing was pretty much done," Young recalls. "We were just too young when it was happening. So all these labels were saying, `Son, you're just too country for rock and too rock for country.'" Through it all, Itchy Brother had garnered a rabid following in clubs like Mr. C's and Picasso's in Bowling Green, Kentucky. They melded white-trash rock classics with unlikely covers and some smoldering originals. They didn't go outside what sounded right in the practice house, either.
"We never did any top 40," Richard declares proudly.
But in 1981, Itchy Brother scratched its last B string. Richard commuted to dreaded Nashville where he had landed a staff job at the Acuff-Rose songwriting mill. Brother Fred played Patsy Cline's drummer in the movie Sweet Dreams, and in real life he played drums for country singer Sylvia. That fall, Greg Martin auditioned for the lead picker spot in Ronnie McDowell's band. Trying out for the bassist's position at the same time was Doug Phelps. Both got the jobs and soon became fast friends. Martin liked the way Phelps plucked his bass. It had a certain recklessness that reminded him of the old days with Itchy Brother. In fact, Martin occasionally found his way back to Metcalfe, where he would meet up with the Youngs and fill up the practice house with Southern-style rock 'n' roll and talk about reviving the old band. On one trip, Martin brought along his new buddy Doug Phelps.
"Our cousin, our bassist [Anthony Kenney] didn't want to come back," Richard says. "He'd just gotten married, and you know what that means. He was learnin' about it, findin' out he'd have to squeeze the toothpaste a certain way and such."
Doug filled in the bass spot fine, and a new band was in the oven. For their new effort, they wanted a bona fide lead singer. Audition after audition failed to yield such, and the group wasn't playing with the same chicken-fried panache as the old Itchy Brother days.
"We were missin' more than a singer, you know? Doug was sort of an outsider. I mean . . . " Richard Young's heavy accent thickens even more as his voice rises above the background chortling in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, motel room. "I mean, he could play that bass all right, you know, but it wasn't family no more." There was more laughter, and Richard announces that Greg Martin is taking over the conversation.