"We Ain’t Lookin’ Back", The Kentucky Headhunters Tap Into Their Blues Vein

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Kentucky Headhunters (Photo by Joel Kinison)
Kentucky Headhunters (Photo by Joel Kinison)

“We ain’t lookin’ back, you know, were heading the other way!” Richard Young (rhythm guitar, vocals) proudly says about The Kentucky Headhunter’s new album, Meet Me In Bluesland released June, 2, 2015 on Alligator Records. The album contains previously unreleased material by legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson. The blues-infused album features rockin’ blues tracks with killer guitar riffs and vocals ornamented with Johnson’s relentless piano.

Richard Young describes how he first met Johnnie Johnson. “We first met at the 1992 Grammy Awards. He was sitting all by himself at a table, seemingly unknown by any of the guests. This is one of the few men who helped define what is known as rock’n’roll. This is not right!” Young politely introduced himself along with the rest of the band members. This act of kindness, characteristic of these down-home southern gentlemen, would lead to an ever-lasting friendship and music collaboration between them.

At the urging of Keith Richards (who inducted Johnson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Johnnie Johnson and the Kentucky Headhunters would unite to put out an album in 1993 called That’ll Work. The album was a perfect mixture of hillbilly- flavored blues with an adrenaline-rising early rock’n’roll influence. Regrettably, the album really didn’t get too much attention or marketing from the label. After this project, Johnson went back to St. Louis and became a bus driver and slipped away into the obscurity of daily mundane activities.

Ten years later (2003), Johnson was paid by The Kentucky Headhunters to play on the recording of “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” which would become a track on Soul. When Johnnie Johnson arrived, the Kentucky Headhunters decided to put the recording of Soul on hold and write and record with Johnson. Over a course of three days, the music kept coming and blues compositions were spontaneously born. Johnson would leave and the Kentucky Headhunters would return to recording Soul, released in 2003. The timeless collection of spirited performances recorded with Johnson over those three days were literally hidden away under Young’s bed until, at the request of Johnson’s wife Frances, they were brought back to life in Meet Me In Bluesland.

Richard Young talks about the recording with Johnnie Johnson for the first time in 1993, “We didn’t have a big piano in the practice house, so he (Johnson) had to use an electric Wurlitzer to write That’ll Work with us. Johnnie would hit the keys so hard that one day I asked him why? He replied, ‘back in the 50’s when me and Chuck was doing all the hits, they only had a mic on Chuck and his guitar…if I wanted to be heard I had to lay into that piano! Same for everybody back then!’” The inescapable sounds of Johnson hammering down the piano riffs are demonstrated in the new release of “Walking With the Wolf.”

Will The Kentucky Headhunters continue to tap into their blues vein? They are famously known for their 80’s & 90’s country hits like “Dumas Walker,” “Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine,” and “Oh Lonesome Me.” Surprisingly, Richard Young says the band was never comfortable with the country genre and had no intention of going to Nashville. That is not to say that Young is not thankful for the fame that came along with the country hits. Ultimately, the fame has given them an opportunity to do what that really wanted to do, shed their skin and explore their origins of blues-rock, which they were doing back in 1986. The band’s live shows don’t sway too far from the blues-rock genre. “At our age were gonna do what we love, and we love the blues,” says Young. Indeed, the diverse set list for the Kentucky Headhunters is as varied as the music genres in their part of the country; a stirring of bluegrass, country, soul, rock, and blues.

The Kentucky Headhunters are clearly coming out of overlapping worlds and we can expect a series of startling experiments to follow. “We started writing a batch of songs back in 2013 as a follow up to our 2011 release, Dixie Lullabies. But as folks know, we took a u-turn last year and finished up the Johnnie Johnson album, which was the right thing to do” says lead guitarist Greg Martin.

Blues fans can trust The Kentucky Headhunters to continue exploring the blues tradition as a way of expressing their well-earned life stories. Greg Martin puts everything into perspective by saying, “I do hope we continue to play blues. At our age we have lived more life and can put more soul into what we play. Stay tuned!”

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