Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.
Today we have Keith, from Nostalgic Italian. Though he largely details day to day life as a family man, his background in radio for years makes him interested and well qualified to talk about fine albums. And his pick…:
It is time for another round of Turntable Talk, hosted by Dave at A Sound Day. This is the 12th round that I have participated in and it has quickly become one of my favorite “features” to participate in. There has not been a topic that Dave has presented that has not been interesting for me to explore. This round is no exception. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out his site and read the contributions of other music lovers, too!
For this round, Dave says, “This time around I’m calling it “First Time’s The Charm.” Let’s look at an artist whose debut really impressed you. It can be one that just knocked you out first time you heard it when it was brand new, or one you went back & discovered later. As long as it showed a band or singer that hit the ground running.“
In talking with one of the other participants this week, I mentioned that with each topic, one choice always seems to hit me immediately. Then I begin to think about other possibilities, and without fail I always seem to come back to the first choice. This time around, I decided not to consider anything else and go with the first thing that came to mind.
It is 1989. In our living room is the shelving unit that contains my dad’s stereo system. One shelf holds the receiver/amplifier while the cassette deck and Sony Mini-disc players sit on top of each other on the shelf above that. Two speakers sit on top of the unit. A turntable sits on a shelf that slides out on the top left of the unit. Under that, on a shelf all by itself is a Sony CD player.
My dad calls me out to the living room and says, “Keith, you’ve gotta hear this!” My dad has certainly played a major role in sharing great music with me. The above phrase was spoken by him to me more times than I can count. Oh, the music he introduced me to! I would have to say that 9 times out of 10, it has always been something that I have really liked. The CD he popped in the player was the debut album from The Kentucky Headhunters.
The group started back in the late 60’s and called themselves “Itchy Brother.” In 1980, the group was almost signed to a record deal at Swan Song Records, which was a small label founded by the band Led Zeppelin. However, Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died that year and the label folded. Itchy Brother disbanded in 1982. In 1985, there was an attempt to reunite the group. This attempt led to a few new members joining while some original members decided not to be a part of the group. Now missing some of the original members, a new name was chosen for the band – The Headhunters. It didn’t take long to find out that there was another band using that name, so “Kentucky” was added to the name.
The group decided to take out a loan to record a demo. That demo included some original songs and some cover songs. They had hoped to press copies of the demo to sell as merchandise at their live shows. It didn’t take long for that demo to get noticed by folks in Nashville. The group was not really interested in signing a record deal, but their manager suggested that they talk with producer Harold Shedd at Mercury Records. They were signed to their deal in 1989 and the demo was released as their debut album Pickin’ on Nashville.
I hadn’t intended on listening to the whole album that day, but when my dad hit play, I really liked what I heard. While they certainly had a Southern rock sound, it wasn’t really completely Southern rock, if that even makes sense. It is kind of a mixture of country, Southern rock, a bit of blues, classic rock, a little rockabilly, and maybe even a little bit of metal. It was like nothing I had heard in some time. It was a very unique mix of various styles and types of music.
The first cut on the album was a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine”. Bill’s version has a very bluegrass feel to it. The Headhunters had me from the opening guitar lick. Then I was really digging the harmonies of the group. The guitar solo had a rock/B.B. King feel to it, which I just loved. The debut single reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, the first of four Top 40 singles for the band.
The second single from the album is probably their best known song, but not quite their biggest hit. It almost didn’t make the album, though. “Dumas Walker” is a song that is about a Kentucky hangout. The lyrics tell of hanging out there eating a “slawburger, fries, and a bottle of Ski.” Folks in Kentucky knew that a slawburger was a burger with cole slaw on it, and a bottle of Ski is a soda that is a lot like Mountain Dew. The record company wasn’t too keen on it, though.
Producer Harold Shedd felt that the song was too local. He felt like no one outside of Kentucky would connect with the song. He asked band member Richard Young if they would be willing to leave the song off the record. After much discussion, Young says that he convinced Shedd to keep it on the record. He said that Shedd was missing the point – that every place had their own “‘Dumas Walker’s’ and they can relate to that!” He was right. The song was a top 20 hit for the band in 1990.
Another thing that helped get the band recognition was CMT (Country Music Television), which was the country version of MTV. The early headhunter videos are a blast to watch. How could anyone possible turn off a video set in a bar with people playing marbles, the lead singer juggling bowling pins, and the drummer banging on his drum kit with no shirt and a coon skin cap on!? Incidentally, the video was nominated for the CMA video of the year in 1990.
Richard Young says that the group had a “magnetism that people just couldn’t resist” and compared it to watching the old Monkees TV show. He said, “People want to be entertained. If you can’t hold their eyes, they will wander.” Watch a few of their videos and you will certainly be entertained.
The third single from the album was another cover song. This time it was a cover of Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me.” Gibson’s version is very typical 1960’s country. The Headhunters version kicks it up a notch with a driving beat and video that really fits the “Monkees” description above. This song peaked at number 8 and would be the band’s only Top 10 hit. The fourth and final single from the album was “Rock and Roll Angel,” which is mostly forgettable
The band enjoyed great success in 1989/1990 because of their debut album. In 1990, they won the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Vocal Duo or Group Award , The Country Music Associations Vocal Group of the Year, and the CMA Album of the Year. They also won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group that year.
Sadly, their follow up album Electric Barnyard was a major disappointment. It was certified gold, but the singles released to radio didn’t get much airplay. Citing creative differences, Ricky Lee Phelps and Doug Phelps left the group in 1992 to form their own band, Brother Phelps.
The band has continued to tour with a variety of different members and their last album was released in 2021. They never really enjoyed much success after that debut album. That being said, I believe their fresh sound really paved the way for (and had a big influence on) some of the more recent country singers who have a more “rock” sound.
One thing I think is important to mention is that the Kentucky Headhunters hit the scene at a very unique time in country music. In 1989, this new group stood out during a time that also saw country music’s amazing “Class of ’89” hit the scene. They were in the thick of things at the same time that Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and a dude by the name of Garth Brooks were getting their debuts as well. The fact that they made waves amongst those guys is a testament to that first album.
It is hard to say what factored into the decline in popularity. Was it hard to get airplay with all of those other big names taking off? Was the music that followed just not good enough? Did the loss of the Phelps Brothers put the nail in the coffin for the band? Maybe it is a little bit of each of those things. The Kentucky Headhunters recorded nine studio albums, but you really only need to get their debut, Pickin’ on Nashville. It is as good as it gets.