by Michael Buffalo Smith
The Kentucky Headhunters are back and in fine form with their new album Soul, a fun-filled romp through Muscle Shoals influenced soul and Memphis flavored r&b. We caught up with band members Greg Martin and Richard Young for a fun pair of interviews that cover everything from Eddie Hinton to Delaney Bramlett to Greg’s new side project with Jimmy Hall.
First up, guitarist Greg Martin.
It’s good to finally talk with you again.
Yeah, it’s all in God’s timing is the way I look at it.
I got some great stories from Richard, and I loved his accent. How did you two meet?
I grew up in Louisville and met him there. He does have more of a defined Southern accent. He’s kind of like the Kentucky Jerry Clower. (laughs)
(laughs) How did you first become interested in playing music?
To put it simply it was my calling in life. I knew early on that I had a real love of radio, and we would be taking trips in the country listening to the radio, Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, and I really wasn’t into the blues at that time, it hit a little later. I grew up in a black neighborhood in Louisville early on for a few years and I used to hear it around my neighborhood, but I know that planted a seed for what was to come later.
AM Radio was my first exposure and took me on a great adventure. I don’t know if you have read the Delaney and Bonnie liner notes that I did for their CD (D&B Together reissue on Columbia Legacy), the updated liner notes. They told me to give them 750 words and I ended up writing 3,000. When I lived in Louisville, we had great AM radio stations, WKLO, WAKY and back in those days radio didn’t know racial barriers and didn’t have so many fences around it. This is country and this is r&b and back then you would hear Jerry Butler, The Impressions, Roy Orbison, and strangely enough you could hear Don Gibson on the same station. I fell in love with music on the radio. My Dad got very fed up with Louisville in 1966 and just uprooted the whole family and moved us down to Metcalf County. Louisville had a very thriving music scene at that time and had really good bands, Soul Incorporated and The Rugby’s - and they were regional acts that had just started making some records. But when he moved us down here all I had basically was the radio. I would tune into WLS, WCFL, WLAC in Nashville and listen to John R and at about the same time in 1966 I started messing around with the guitar and picking it up and playing it. Then my brother took me to see The Loving Spoonful in 1966 -and I’ve got to tell all this because Zaln passed away last year- I told him that when I saw him play at the Memorial Auditorium that was one of the things that pushed me forward to play the guitar.
Who was that you said?
Zaln Yanovsky. I tracked him down and told him that he was partially the reason that I got involved in music. I love the Lovin’ Spoonful. I met John Sebastian, actually we met them all and they are great.
I liked John’s solo stuff, too.
Yeah, me too. When I heard the Lovin’ Spoonful, that really triggered something in me. Looking back, they were playing a lot of Mississippi John Hurt influenced blues and some of that finger picking stuff that John was doing along with Zaln’s twangy guitar thing, it was just so cool. I actually interviewed John Sebastian on my radio show a couple of years ago.
Boy I wish I could pick up your show.
The radio website is not totally up to date, because I am so busy and I need to go through my archives because I have lots of interviews like Bonnie Bramlett, Delaney, John Sebastian, Spooner Oldham, Charlie Musselwhite, Chuck Leavell. I have a great interview with Chuck. Tell you what Michael, I love making music, but love to explore other people’s musical interests. I am just a music fan. I just knew early on that it was a calling for my life. Another event happened in 1968, there was a local band that was called Elysian Field that were a great three piece rock band, and I am sure that they were emulating Cream and Blue Cheer a little bit. When I saw those guys it really just put me over the edge to play music and like I say I was going through AM radio every night just looking for something. Then when I heard Cream it really spoke to me. Something just tugged at my soul and it was similar to a preacher being lead to preach. I don’t know, it was almost like a surreal experience and I will never forget it. Then about one month later I met Richard and Fred and we started playing together in the fall of 1968.
What kind of music were you playing - rock and blues?
Led Zep, ZZ Top, Montrose - the Marshall amps thing - rockin’ blues. There was no country going on except for the way we talked (laughs).
A real power trio...
Oh yeah, and I still love that. I’m a freeze-dried hippie musician, I guess. When the first Montrose album came out, that was my life. Rock was definitely our roots - all of it. In 1981 I got a gig with Ronnie McDowell. He was a big country singer at the time, and after my wife and I got married I played in a disco band for a while - whatever it took to pay the bills. We played all over the place in that band, from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to Phoenix City, Alabama (laughs). I’d come out of a blues- based band, which I loved, but in this band I had to acquire a deeper knowledge of chords. I was kind of thrown in the deep end for awhile, because three of the guys in the band were music majors. They could have taught music, you know? So I bought some Mickey Baker books, learned some different styles of playing, like Larry Carlton (which I still don’t understand all that well), but I did learn a lot of chords and funk rhythms. To this day I still love playing funk guitar-James Brown- stuff like that. It was great training. Then we put Itchy Brother back together with our manager, Mitchell Fox, and we cut a demo. Unfortunately we also brought in a new lead singer, and in the process, we lost the old magic. We even changed our name to Thoroughbred for awhile. We played showcases in New York, but it didn’t work out.
Tell me about the record deal with Swan Song?
In the winter of 1978 we were all stuck on the Young’s farm during a bad snow. We were big Zeppelin and Bad Company fans, and one afternoon we were all looking at a Led Zeppelin album and Richard gets this idea to actually call Swan Song in New York City. He got the number from directory assistance and called. Since it was after hours no one was in the offices but Mitchell Fox, who was about to catch the elevator when the phone rang. He picked up the phone and Richard started telling him about our band, Itchy Brother, and it really intrigued Mitchell. We kept the conversations open, sent him tapes, and he flew to Louisville in the spring and saw us play at Sound Stage. He loved the band, and that was the beginning of our relationship with him. Mitchell put us in the studio, played the tapes for Peter Grant, Zeppelin’s manager, and we played some showcase dates in New York. About that time John Bonham died, and so did the chance at Swan Song.
And the creation of the Headhunters followed?
Well, after the Swan Song deal folded and the demo failed to get us a deal, I was offered the gig with Ronnie McDowell. Having a family, it was time to get a job I guess. It was a wonderful experience, plus I met Doug Phelps the first week. Around 1986, Richard, Fred, Doug and I just started getting together and writing songs when we could for what became the Headhunters.
We were also doing a monthly radio broadcast called The Chitlin Show back then. We grabbed Rickie Lee Phelps for the band, and it just kind of evolved with a little help from some unexpected sources. One night when I was with Ronnie McDowell, we tore into “Hideaway” by Freddie King, and this gentleman walked up to the stage - Jonathan D.W. Lyle. He’s credited on the first CD. He said, “Do you guys need any songs? Do you like the blues?” Well, we got to talkin’ on the bus and I played him some practice tapes of the Headhunters, and he wound up fronting the money for our first album, Pickin’ On Nashville. We had $4,500 to make the tape, and that’s what we used to shop the Headhunters deal.
Originally, we were just going to sell the tapes at our gigs, but it turned into something else. We played a showcase in Nashville for a bunch of record executives, and a lot of them walked out because we were too loud. We sure didn’t fit the typical image of a country band, but people seemed to like what we were doing. By the time we recorded our first Headhunters record we’d accumulated at least two albums of material. Lee Roy Parnell heard us that night and said that we were “heavy metal bluegrass.” (laughs) Lee Roy was signed the same night that we were, by the way. Harold Shedd signed us, and at the time, he was running A & R for Mercury Records. He also discovered Alabama, Billy Ray Cyrus, and K.T. Oslin. Harold is a wonderful man, and he’s certainly got the touch.
How many albums had the Headhunter’s released prior to Soul?
Well, the first one was Pickin’ On Nashville, followed by Electric Barnyard, and after that we took a little break. Doug and Ricky left, and we brought in our cousin Anthony, who was with Itchy Brother. Then we grabbed Mark Orr, who is a brilliant blues and rock singer, and we recorded Rave On for Mercury, and a CD for Elektra titled That’ll Work with Johnnie Johnson. He was elected into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago, and also plays on Soul. In 1996, Doug Phelps came back as our lead singer after he’d been our bass player and a harmony singer the first time around. In ‘97 we put out Stompin’ Ground, and last year we recorded the new album, Songs From The Grass String Ranch.
You were telling me the other day about how your relationship with God has changed your life for the better.
I had to check myself about 7-8 years ago and got back into church and rededicated myself to God and I was trying to make a living but it came pretty much to me that this is my calling and what I should do, playing guitar, mouthing on the radio, or writing.
What better way to spread your faith than through songwriting, playing. You don’t even have to be doing straight up front-row-in-the-Baptist-Church, it could be spiritual messages in the songs.
Music is spiritual and a gift from God. It is easy to lose your heart in the music business, and I am not saying this to discourage people, but when you get to trying to please record companies, managers, and other people sometimes you can lose your heart vision. In Psalms, it says that “Be still and know that I am God” and sometimes it can be hard to hear God’s voice. God gave us that platform to minister to people and music should be a joyful celebration. Me and Mighty Sam McLane have been talking and e-mailing each other and talking about the blues. The older you live and the more you have experienced, whether it is joy, pain, or loss, the music does come from the heart. I think as you get older the music gets deeper and wider and that is what I love about it. You just don’t stop growing in this realm. It is my calling in life. I got interested through the radio and then after the 60’s with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones I got more and more into it. Then I started looking on the records and asking who was Chester Burnett, or McKinley Morganfield? (laughs)
Tell me about your connection with Delaney and Bonnie?
Well,that was through Walter Ed Amick actually. He called me back in 1997 about a benefit in Scottsburg, Indiana which is a new thing that happens ever year in November where they do an auction for two days and they take up clothes and gifts for needy kids. That particular year, he was flying Delaney and Kim, who was married to him at the time, and they were putting a band around Delaney. I didn’t know Ed and Ed didn’t know me either. He said that he had Delaney coming in from California and asked if I would be interested in coming up and I told them I would love it. Are you kidding? (laughs)
So I attended the event and it was right around Thanksgiving, and once you meet Delaney it’s like you have known him all your life. We hit it off extremely well and we talked on the phone and I had him on my radio show and got to know him even more and worked with him in the studio on a CD that has not come out yet. Then we cut a gospel song that is going to be on a later project. Then I went out and spent some time on the ranch with him with the Headhunters.
He is like a mentor. God gave him a great gift of teaching people and encouraging people. He is a great guitarist and God gave him a gift. You may not think you are real good, and he will find something in you and he will bring it out of you. He is one of the most comfortable producers I have been around. To watch him work the board is amazing. He learned from Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler. I have never seen a guy work like that on the board. It is almost like he is playing it, and he works those faders - it’s amazing. I think God put him in my path for a reason and I am thankful for that. I met Bonnie at Blues Aid about a year and a half ago. She has been to Glasgow too a couple of times, and she is a good lady. And she can sing her tail end off!
Tell me about your project with Jimmy Hall.
That’s a fun little thing and in 1993, 1994 I went through a time of being hurt and broken, the band had broken up 1992 and it just crushed my spirit. In about 1994 when I rededicated my life to the Lord, and I was going into the studio here at David Barracks -and its a cool place like Muscle Shoals- and I was just laying things down really not knowing what I was doing and I laid a track down called “John the Revelator.” It’s not like Gov’t Mule’s version, but is akin to it, I guess. In 1993, I didn’t really realize what I was doing. This thing just morphed into a gospel/blues project. I brought Jimmy Hall up, and he has got to be my favorite singer going. In 1998 I brought him up to sing some things and I could see he needed to be on this CD. About one year ago I was talking to Jimmy and he said God gave me a name for the project. He said “The Mighty Jeramiahs.” And I said, “That’s it!” (laughs) There are lots of folks on it and Jimmy Hall and myself, my stepson John McGee and Mark Hendrix. Those two boys have a band called Tail Dragger out of Lexington, that you would love and they are kind of Southern rock blues. That was the core, and I also brought in Kevin McKendry of Delbert McClinton’s band and RIchard and Fred, actually all of the Headhunters were on a track or two somewhere. Bonnie Bramlett is on it and Curtis Burch who used to play with New Grass Revival, so there were lots of folks and I had to whittle it down a little bit to make it more focused and it is kind of a Southern rock blues celebration.
Are you putting this out independently?
No, actually a Christian label out of Nashville, headed up by a guy that used to run Reunion Records. They have started a new label in Nashville and he picked up on it immediately and understood my vision for it. He is going to put it out in the Christian market and I think it is also going to be put out on the secular market under another distributor. Right now, all the lawyers are having their heyday and I just finished the first master and hopefully by the end of the summer it will be out. It could be fall and it has been a long time coming.
I am looking forward to hearing that?
It is a side project and we can go play some festivals and churches with it.
I wanted to get you to tell me your thoughts on the latest album, Soul. I really like the Soul album and I talked to Richard and he said he didn’t know who Eddie Hinton was until he did that album, and I said that’s wild because I think he sounds so much like Eddie.
I can honestly tell you that I like the album, and I liked the last one we did. I don’t listen to the older stuff, and once you have made a statement you have trouble listening to it- to the older stuff. It’s so strange because we worked very hard last year on the road. Then when I am home I have my radio show. Plus I have been working on this gospel project and my stepson’s band, I do work with them. Then in November was our last date. Everyone went off in their own direction. Richard went hunting, Anthony was doing some housework. Doug did his thing and Fred is on tractors.
Through the radio show it has been an education for me. I am always learning from stuff. We had no idea what we were going to do. Usually we rehearse a lot and have a few tracks laying around that we can doctor up and put on an album. This particular time we were naked. We had no idea. We got together in January and Richard had discovered Eddie Hinton and that was a wonderful thing. Everyone had been off on their own path and it just came together. I think a couple of the guys had one song half way completed, and Anthony had that Carl Perkins song. I guess sometimes you are just able to get out of the way. All five of us got out of the way and something bigger than us made the collaboration. There were some influences that came through, Eddie Hinton through Richard. I had known about Eddie from a picture of him and Duane Allman working at Muscle Shoals in Hit Parader. Eddie was playing a Danelectro six string. Have you seen that picture?
That was my first exposure to him and I really didn’t know who he was. Back in ‘96-97 when I started doing my radio show, Zane
Records gave me some copies of the guy and he was the blackest sounding white guy I had ever heard. There were some other things that came into play and everybody, while they were off, just got off into their own worlds and brought it into the session. I do believe that this is a different Headhunter album than we have ever made. There was not enough time to mess it up! (laughs) You can look back and say I wish we had done this or that, but we only rehearsed 2-3 times and went straight to the studio and by the grace of God we recorded it, and it was pretty sparse. I think we all got out of the way as people and let something else come in. We knocked it out and mixed it in 2-3 days. But yes, I like this album it is a very honest statement.