Q&A: Kentucky HeadHunters guitarist talks career, touring

Courtesy photo: thekentuckyheadhunters.com The Kentucky Headhunters, who started in 1968 as a family band called Itchy Brothers, will be the opening act for Phil Vassar Saturday at the Clovis Music Festival.

Courtesy photo: thekentuckyheadhunters.com
The Kentucky HeadHunters, who started in 1968 as a family band called Itchy Brothers, will be the opening act for Phil Vassar Saturday at the Clovis Music Festival.

The opening act for Saturday night’s performance at the Clovis Music Festival has been in music for nearly half a century, and draws fans of all genres because everybody has a “Dumas Walker” of their own.

The Kentucky HeadHunters, who started with a pair of brothers and their cousins in 1968 as Itchy Brothers, has gone through many changes, but has always included Richard and Fred Young.

The group, named vocal group of the year in 1990 and 1991 by the Country Music Association, has worked with countless other acts both in and out of country music and is planning to release a still-to-be-named album with the late Johnnie Johnson, whose work with Chuck Berry led to his induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Guitarist and vocalist Richard Young answered a few questions in advance of the group’s upcoming show.

It took you 20 years from the formation of the band to getting national hits. How do you think that affected you guys and your music?
You’ve heard the saying overnight sensations. All the millions who bought our records, we were. Just like today, if we don’t get to a certain area, we don’t get played on country radio. I think the 20 years set us up to realize that we were a true English rock, blues rock band. We started in the house our grandmother gave us because she didn’t want to rent it, and we still practice there today 45 years later.

How do you think the career would have been different if you got a record deal in your first few years?
I’ve given that a whole lot of thought, and I think everything happens for a reason. It’s probably good, with us being country boys. By no means were we green — we were living in Atlanta in 1976 — but we weren’t streetwise at the time. We were never into drugs or booze, but it would have (probably been a part of early fame). I always wanted have my band to be a big rock band, but I guess we’re better off being one-of-a-kind in country than a rock and roll statistic.

Dumas Walker was a lot more popular than your record label originally anticipated. Were there any songs you have that you thought would become bigger hits?
All of them. (laughs) That song, “Dumas Walker,” is about a real guy and it’s a true story. We live about 40 miles due east of Bowling Green in a little town called Edmonton. It was a dry area, and fireworks were illegal. Our parents would take us down (to Bowling Green) to get fireworks for July 4. And this guy Dumas Walker was the undisputed marble champion of the world. He was it, and he had a trick where he would play marbles and the kids wanted to go to his store. When we got our driver’s licenses, our dads would send us to the feed mill and we’d sneak off down to Dumas’ place.

We’re in the practice house, writing some songs, and we write this song in about 15 minutes. It took 15 minutes to write. But you write something prolific, think it’s a masterpiece (and nothing). I think a lot of it is timing. You can write the greatest song in the world, and if the stars don’t line up right, it will go right over people’s heads.

It wasn’t (popular because it was) about our place. Everybody had a Dumas Walker, a place that meant something to them that’s become a part of their memory forever. It became a hit with everybody from babies to 90-year-old men. It wasn’t just a particular genre that liked that song.

I just wrote the greatest song I’ve ever written, and I hate to say something like that. But we’ve played it, and people have loved it. It’s like our new “Dumas,” but nothing like it.

What’s the most unusual tour stop you’ve ever made, for whatever reason?
It’s not a junk shop, but I think it’s a fort. It’s in Iowa. This guy has everything you can think of. I’m sure “American Pickers” has been there, but he’s selling nothing. I’m sure if it’s been made in the last 200 years, it’s in there. Everything from a pistol Hitler owned to a stuffed elephant, he’s got it. It’s one of my favorite places, and there’s no way to see it all in a day. It probably takes up 20 acres.

Another one we made was close to you. We used to own Elvis Presley’s bus. I don’t know why we bought it, other than thinking it was kind of cool. We were coming from El Paso and blew out the engine and transmission at the same time in Amarillo. I don’t fly, so my brother and I and one of the roadies got an 18-passenger van to go home.

What’s in your vehicle’s CD player right now?
All of the Led Zeppelin reissue stuff. That, and we played in Houston Sunday night. The guy who wrote the book on Johnnie Johnson’s life came and gave me a CD of all of the early outtakes of Chuck Berry that he and Johnny did. You can hear them talking about what they’re going to do, and it’s them writing the song.

What’s the No. 1 way time has changed what you do?
Computers and cell phones. When CDs happened, I thought, “That’s the most far out thing I’ve ever heard of.” The way music has advanced to iPods … really, the record business never changed a lot until the CD. We’re in a weird situation right now where people don’t like to listen to albums, or they don’t have time or they haven’t been taught to.

My son’s band writes albums, and they’re albums where you don’t have to skip to find something good. That’s getting lost, and I think that’s what got us to the single-mindedness of music. An album’s not worth a dime if you can’t listen to it all the way through. It’s like reading a book that’s missing chapters.

I don’t save numbers in my phone. Everybody tells me, “Just punch it in the phone.” You need to memorize. It’s an important part of the faculty of our brain. I probably know about 2,000 phone numbers. I may get them mixed up some times, but it’s good brain food. Everybody’s got a calculator, and there are kids who can’t subtract eight from nine.

It’s been great for us to have for staying in contact with people, but it has drawbacks.

Anything else?
We haven’t been to New Mexico in six years. It’s going to be nice to cross over. That is one area where, when we first came out, we couldn’t stay away. It just dissipated, same with the south. But just last year, we’ve started playing those areas again. It makes me wonder if our style of music is making a comeback, but I don’t know. We’re definitely looking forward to it, because we’ve had some great times in New Mexico.

— Compiled by staff writer Kevin Wilson and edited for length and clarity