For a Grammy-winning musical artist who has sold nearly 6 million records with the Kentucky Headhunters, Richard Young is about as much of a regular guy as can be. He’s as happy to talk about his family tree, antique gun collecting and fishing as he is to talk about his adventures in the music business.
Reached by phone at his home on the family spread in Kentucky where he grew up, Young apologizes for being a few minutes late for the interview, explaining that he’s been doing some errands for his sister, or as he terms it, “steppin’ and fetchin’.”
The Headhunters are coming to La Crosse Oct. 19 for a show at The Brickhouse, and Young is pumped up about that prospect.
“I can’t wait to get there,” he said. “We’re really excited about coming up to The Brickhouse. We’ve got so many friends up there, and Dave’s Guitar is right up the road.”
When he comes to La Crosse, Young also will get a chance to pick up a custom-guitar stand made by Paul Thieman of Ontario-based String Swing, crafted from ash wood that his grandfather cut.
Family is a big deal for Young, who first started playing in a band as a teen in 1968 with his drumming brother, Fred, and cousins Greg Martin and Anthony Kenny. They called the band Itchy Brother and through the 1970s and early ’80s flirted with one record deal after another, including one with Led Zeppelin’s label, Swan Song, that fell through after Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s death ended the band and the label.
Young and his bandmates loved Zeppelin, Free, the Faces and all the hard rockin’ blues-based British bands.
“We always wanted to be an English rock band, but we couldn’t be. Geography played it’s hand in that,” Young said. “If somebody had told me in the ’70s I’d be making country records, I would have laughed them out of the room.”
But that’s exactly what Young and his bandmates did.
Itchy Brother disbanded for a while in the early 1980s, and Young went to work as a Nashville songwriter for the famed Acuff-Rose Music. “I was about as necessary as a tomcat with teats down there, but what I didn’t realize at the time was it was a great training ground there.” Young said.
His time on Music Row had at least one big missed opportunity. Young recalled one time he was at a charity golf event and songwriting great Sanger “Whitey” Shafer came up to him and invited him to adjourn to the hotel room for a songwriting session.
Young, of course, was honored by the offer but declined.
“He didn’t need any help writing a song. All he probably wanted me to do is open beers for him,” Young said, adding that Shafer offhandedly shared the title of the song he wanted to work up: “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”
In the mid-1980s, Martin and the Young brothers launched a new band, calling it Kentucky Headhunters, recruiting Doug Phelps to play bass, along with his brother, Ricky Lee, as lead singer. Thanks to a twice-monthly 90-minute show on WLOC, a radio station that reached a lot of people passing by Munfordville, Ky., on the interstate, the Headhunters built a following.
Young said the Headhunters came along at a time when there was a hunger among country fans for something that rocked, and two decades after they started Itchy Brother, they had huge success with their first album, “Pickin’ on Nashville,” which included “Dumas Walker” “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” and “Oh Lonesome Me.”
Executives at the band’s record label, Mercury, weren’t convinced that the band’s debut album was going to be such a hot commodity, so only 15,000 copies of the album were produced, Young said. That printing sold out on the first day, and “Pickin’ on Nashville” was a huge seller, earning the band a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance and a CMA Album of the Year award.
Almost 30 years later, the Kentucky Headhunters still have nearly the same lineup they had when they started (minus Ricky Lee Phelps). Since “Pickin’ on Nashville,” the band has released 10 albums of what they describe as “guitar-heavy, rambunctious music,” including the most recent, 2016’s “On Safari.”
Young said the band hasn’t had a ton of radio play over the years, and that’s nice in a way because the fans appreciation for the band’s music goes deeper, and the band doesn’t have to be just a hits-playing jukebox machine on stage.
“That’s the greatest blessing that can be bestowed on a band. You open up a whole new level of listeners to our music,” Young said. “We threw our set list away many years ago. I just wing it.”
“If somebody had told me in the ’70s I’d be making country records, I would have laughed them out of the room.” Richard Young