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Richard Young of The Kentucky Headhunters Tells All (INTERVIEW)

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When The Kentucky Headhunters took off in 1989 following the release of their debut album, Pickin’ On Nashville, you knew they were the real deal. Their southern rock/blues/country sound appealed to a wide range of music lovers and they sold out concerts, shot up the Billboard charts and won a Grammy all within a two year span. And they never became uppity with rock star ego in the process.

With the release of On Safari last year, the Headhunters’ twelfth studio album holds true to what they have been all along: rockers with a country heart of gold. With spirited songs like “I Am The Hunter,” “Jukebox Full Of Blues” and “Deep South Blues Again,” you wouldn’t suspect that the band went into the recording of this with a cloud of sadness hovering over them. A few days before hitting the studio, James Howard Young, the ninety-three year old father of singer/guitar player Richard and drummer Fred, passed away. He was an inspiration to the boys long after they became men, husbands and fathers, and his loss was deeply felt. But as artists, they also had the resilience to get a job done and On Safari was completed quickly.

Kentucky is deep in the Young roots. Richard will happily tell the story of how 7000 acres of land was given to their ancestor, of which 700 still remains in the family. In fact, it was in a little farmhouse on the property that belonged to their grandmother that they started kicking around making music as kids. That little 14×14 space became known as the Practice House and it’s where, first, Itchy Brother and then the Kentucky Headhunters shaped their sound, while having a few parties in between. It’s where Richard’s son John Fred’s band, Black Stone Cherry, was born. It’s the same land they still live on. It’s the land where they have fields and chickens. It’s where Richard was out on a combine right before he called in for our interview. “I needed a break from that shaking, honey,” Richard said with a laugh. You can turn a country boy into a rock star but the country boy never goes away.

Richard is a true southern storyteller. It comes out in his music because the Headhunters songs are about real people. And it comes out in his conversations. He’ll talk to you about his family’s history as easily as he’ll tell you stories about Keith Richards. He’ll praise his father as sure as he’ll praise his musical heroes. And when he finds out you’re from Louisiana, he’ll ask about a town down in plantation country that nobody has heard of and before you know it you’re knee deep in regular talk like two old friends hanging out by a pasture fence. In other words, Richard Young is Richard Young, whether singing about “Dumas Walker” or “Crazy Jim” for a few thousand people or sitting on the porch having a good gossip. He doesn’t change skins for anybody. And that has been a big part of the appeal of his music for all these years.

Being a storyteller, my interview with Richard took many twists and turns, sometimes in the same breath, and he had a lot to say about different things. So I fashioned it more like a Richard Says. You’ll see as you read along. And in the end of it, hopefully you will feel, as I did, that you’ve made a new friend.

Richard on his family’s land:

We have like a 700 acre farm that Nathanael Greene, who was a general in the Revolutionary War, deeded our many greats-grandfather, who was his right-hand man. He deeded him like 7000 acres in Kentucky and our dad was able to hang on to 700 acres of it over the generations. You know, a lot of people don’t want to have a farm so they sell their part and that sort of thing.

Richard on his father James and son John Fred:

My dad was a schoolteacher for thirty-nine years and I noticed that my dad never got any older than his class. He was always a kid, even though he was in his sixties, and then when he retired, he became sixty. So I’m determined not to do that, you know, to stay young and I think the music business, for some reason or the other, we’re always around new generations of music lovers and they’re all young and we have people our age come and see us but the new generations of fans come to see us too. And our fans go to see Black Stone Cherry. It’s very, very cool that we’ve been able to create a foundation here on the farm and have two family bands come out of this old house here.

You know, John Fred is one of these guys like our dad – he takes on things that he really shouldn’t try until he gets time. He came to the Practice House about a month ago, before they went out on this last leg, and he said, “Dad, you got to come to the Practice House. You’re not going to believe what I got.” And I’m thinking, okay, he’s got some drum he’s found. So I follow him up to the house, he opens the back end of his truck and I swear to you, Leslie, eighteen chickens hopped out. And I’m like, “Have you lost your mind? You’ve got to finish your house and get in it next month and you went and got eighteen chickens.” (laughs). And I can remember my dad doing the same stuff. He would drive up with a bunch of peacocks in the truck and John Fred’s like a chip off the ole block of our dad. So the Youngs are back in the chicken and peacock business! (laughs).

But our dad was a historian and all this stuff and studying geology and history and English and John Fred’s a really smart guy too. He kind of embarrasses me sometimes because he tells me about things and I’ll say something about a moth and he’ll say, “Well, Dad, there is one in South America that actually does this and this and this.” And I’m like, all these kids get all this information and I can’t even figure out what a tobacco worm is! (laughs)

Richard on Gheens, Louisiana:

Have you ever heard of Gheens, Louisiana? I’m going to tell you a story. Nobody I’ve talked to down there knows where that is. It was a plantation called Gheens Plantation. It existed, it really did, cause I have hunting rights to come down there when I want to. But listen, we had this woman in our family who was not like us, we were just poor old dirt farmers, but she was extremely wealthy. Her and her husband, they lived in Louisville, and they were in with the Curtis people that made candy bars. That’s what they did for a living. You know them little ole butterscotch things you get in the wrapper? The Gheens family made those. So anyway, they are many years gone and my dad’s gone, but he was close to them. I never went up there cause they wouldn’t let me come cause I had long hair. They had like a box seat at the Derby and they told me and Fred if we cut our hair we could come to the Derby but we were like fuck that.

So somewhere down in Louisiana there is a farm that used to be called Gheens Plantation. They may have changed the name of it but there’s actually a town, Gheens, Louisiana. And this guy figured out how to make the Milky Way and other candy bars. He designed the way the swirl went on it. This was like in the thirties or forties or something and what’s funny about it is, they got to saying that sugar is so high we need to get our own sugar. So they bought a plantation and they grew their own sugar for Milky Ways. And this was part of our family and of course my dad and them were all close to them but because we had long hair we never went up there. The lady wouldn’t let us come down there. But for thirty years I’ve been trying to find this place and everybody’d say, “Never heard of it.”

Richard on the Practice House:

The Headhunters have been going since 1968 and our grandmother gave us an old farmhouse in 1968 here on the farm and we’ve always rehearsed there with our band Itchy Brother and then that turned into the Headhunters in 1986. Then the kids came to me in 2001 and they’re like – it was Chris, John Fred, Ben and Jon [Black Stone Cherry] – and they said, “Dad, we want to start a band. We want to move in the Practice House.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, they’ll burn it down!” (laughs) But you know what, they were so cool and of course I read the rights to them – you got to keep the house clean, you got to do this, you got to do that, and we’ve just had a great time and it’s great to have them around and down the road. Nobody in the Headhunters or Black Stone Cherry lives any more than ten minutes from each other.

Richard on Black Stone Cherry, part 1:

They’re a mess, I’m telling you (laughs). They’ve aged me times three! (laughs). No, honey, they’re great people, great kids. They would come in to practice and, Leslie, these guys were driven more than any band I’ve ever seen. They would come in every afternoon after school and rehearse till we’d make them go home. I sat there for a couple of weeks and I said, you know, these guys, they’re going to be able to do this. I’ve got to help them out. So I actually went to them and said, “I’ll tell you what, boys, I’ll help you but now listen to me and don’t buck me and let’s see if we can get this going.” And they leaned on every word and we were able to write their first album and then I was able to get in touch with folks in New York and get them a record deal with Roadrunner. And off they went.

You know, the first album we made we made here at the same place they made their new one [Kentucky] and it had like a raw feel to it. The second album we went down to Blackbird Studios and did it. You know how labels are, they think if you’re being successful you need to get bigger in your studio. I think it took the boys a couple of albums to realize that, hey, you don’t need to do that, you need to stay close to your roots and write about who you are and what you are, because that’s what people are interested in. I mean, everybody can write about the same stuff but to have something different that appeals and I think that’s been very, very good for them over in Europe. I think the Europeans really appreciate that.

Richard on Black Stone Cherry, part 2:

John Fred had been exposed to a lot of blues and a lot of early seventies bands because of his daddy and his uncle in the Headhunters, and Led Zeppelin, Free, all the great singers in rock & roll bands, Paul Rodgers. Chris also had had a dose of it from his dad being in a band, a local band here. His dad taught him about Lynyrd Skynyrd and Merle Haggard. We never listened to country but Chris’s dad Steve had. We all grew up together. We all went to high school together, all the dads, but we all had different bands and played different kinds of music. But the main thing I wanted to impress upon them was how important it was to get a foundation of early rock groups, which would be the blues, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles. I wanted to teach them a foundation.

One of the first things I taught them was to sing harmony. I said, “You’ve got to find some song that nobody would even think of trying to attempt.” It took a whole day to do it but they learned to sing “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles, which that is quite a feat. I knew when they started playing they all had great voices. I mean, John Fred can sing like Steve Perry but that wasn’t the voice they needed. And Chris has this rock & roll growl and he was scared to death to change. He didn’t want to be the singer, he just wanted to play guitar. I said, “You have to do this. No matter whether you want to or not, you have to do this.” And I finally got him to where he understood that he had a voice that would work for rock & roll. And you know Jon Lawhon sounds just like John Fogerty. He never sings lead but he has this fantastic voice. But Chris is the voice of Black Stone Cherry’s sound. But I’m telling you, I knew if they could sing “Nowhere Man” they could sing anything.

Richard on making a record with Chuck Berry’s piano player Johnnie Johnson [Meet Me In Bluesland]:

Johnnie, basically he got tired of Chuck Berry in the eighties, and Johnnie went back to St Louis in the eighties. Keith Richards from the Stones got a call that said, “Listen, we’re going to do a documentary on Chuck Berry and we want you to put an all-star band together with guests to do this thing.” And Keith said, “Well, I’ll do it under one condition;” because Ian Stewart had been the Stones piano player and Keith had said, “What are we going to do without you?” and he goes, “Find Johnnie Johnson.” (laughs) I get tickled every time I tell that.

So Keith found Johnnie and he put him back with Chuck for the movie Hail Hail Rock & Roll, which had everybody on there, Etta James, Clapton, everybody was there. So Electra wants to do this second album because the first one was very successful and Keith said, “You know, you should get the Headhunters to do this cause they’re down there on the farm, they’re self-contained and they can write songs like fishing so it won’t be so hard for Johnnie.”

So we said, hell yeah we’d do it. So they brought Johnnie down to the farm and it was real funny, he walked in and said, “Okay, I’ve been playing country music with Chuck Berry all my life. I hear ya’ll put out country albums. I don’t want to play no damn country. I want to do Jazz Blues.” And we’re like, okay but can we play a little Chuck Berry to see if we pass the test? I think we did “Little Queenie” and he stood up and he said, “Okay, I’m in the Headhunters.”

Leslie, you know blues albums have to be done cheaply and quickly so we wrote this album in a week and then recorded it the next week. What’s funny is, while we’re writing it, I’m thinking, okay, Johnnie is going to get here at 1:00 in the afternoon and we’ll work till midnight. Well, about 5:00 in the afternoon, he says, “Okay, you boys got it going on, I’m going to go down to the hotel.” So when we were mixing the thing, I said, “Johnnie, how come you didn’t stay long?” Are you ready for this? He goes, “Oh, ya’ll had it going on. I had to get back to the hotel and get some Kentucky Fried Chicken and watch Tales From The Crypt.” (laughs)

But we became great friends and we had Johnnie on some TV shows, Conan and different things like that. So anyway, ten years pass and of course Johnnie would go on the road with us and play TV shows with us and that sort of thing. In 2003, we decided we were going to do a new album called Soul. It’s kind of a spinoff of Muscle Shoals. We were trying to emulate like if we were Johnnie Johnson and all those guys and writing songs for like Wilson Pickett. We had some demos of those great songwriters so we knew exactly how to make it sound. But we were working on this and we decided we were going to cut a blues song called “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” which was an old Freddie King song. Billy Myles wrote it but Freddie made the hit out of it. So we called the house and said, “Frances, Johnnie’s wife, where is Johnnie? We want him to come to Kentucky and play on a track on an album.” “Well, he’s out with the Rolling Stones. I’m worried to death about him. He’s out there with that damn Keith Richards and you know they drink and stuff. He don’t need to be out there.” She was like, “I want you to get him, Richard, and get him up there in Kentucky where he will be safe. I want you to take him down there to your mama’s and let him eat whatever he wants to eat, gravy, ham, whatever, and then I want you to record some music with him because Johnnie ain’t going to be with us long.”

So I called Johnnie and he was in Houston with the Stones and he said, “I’ll come in.” So we changed his flight, flew him in and we stopped making our album and spent three days recording this album together. I put it under my bed and it stayed there until 2015. Of course, he passed shortly after that [April 2005]. Then Frances goes, “When’s that album coming out, Richard? I’m going to pass away before I hear it.” The minute she said that we stopped working on On Safari, which we were just writing at that time, and we went in the studio and pulled it up and it was all there. I figured we’d have to change some stuff but it was magic and we put it out and it became a #1 blues album and all that jazz, which we were happy for us but mainly for Johnnie Johnson’s wife. It was a great thing.

Then we got back started on On Safari, a year ago April and we finally got to do that one and our dad passed away. We lost all our rehearsal time and we had three days left so we went back and cut On Safari in three days. It’s a pretty magic record, kind of tells the story of where we’re from. All we can do is persevere, baby.

Richard on their first instrumental, “Governor’s Cup” from On Safari:

Just about everything, about 90% of On Safari, was created in the studio in three days. Greg Martin, our guitar player, our cousin, had this little ditty and Fred came up with the title and we kind of created that.

Richard on guitars:

We all started together in 1968 and our first guitars were not the fanciest ones in the world. They were Teiscos and Deccas and those sort of things but we soon graduated to Gibsons and Fenders. We got good pretty quick but by the early seventies we were opening for guys like Charlie Daniels and Marshall Tucker. I play a Telecaster now and I have a 1952 vintage Telecaster, which I just retired this year. His name is Danny, named after Danny Gatton who passed away. He did some work on it. And Greg has a 1958 Les Paul. We all had many, many guitars but those are the two, I guess, diamonds in our collection. My brother probably has sixty drum sets. We’re like hoarders! (laughs). We use vintage equipment. All of our equipment, most of it is older than we are, which is amazing. Some of it is from our era but everything is from the fifties or sixties or seventies. We don’t use any modern equipment. The drums are from the thirties, forties, fifties. And I think that has a whole lot to do with the way we sound.

 

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