Here’s a certain continuity we didn’t expect or plan. Last week we gathered some legendary purveyors of southern, country-inflected rock and roll to help out an excellent songwriter from Kentucky. This week we’re going to hear from some beloved purveyors of southern, country-inflected rock and roll who are themselves from Kentucky. They’re so intense about what they do and where they’re from that they’re called the Kentucky Headhunters. They snared a number two album and hits with a hearty, heavy sound that was not in style yet on country radio. Some then thought they were from the future, and maybe that future is now. Meanwhile, the rest of our night – our Fall Season opener by the way – is our usual wild and eclectic mix that includes sacred steel guitar power, Colorado bluegrass and kindly old-time folk. Here’s your weekly run-down for the run-up.
The Kentucky Headhunters have had a wild thirty-year ride and a history of near misses, eye-popping hits and a legacy of doing things their own way. They started life as the weirdly named Itchy Brother in 1968, which was on its way to the very not weird move of signing with Led Zeppelin’s boutique label Swan Song Records. But then drummer John Bonham died and that all went sideways. Founding brothers Richard and Fred Young reconfigured the band with more brothers – Doug and Ricky Lee Phelps, plus original lead guitarist and singer Greg Martin.
This is the group that released the album Pickin’ On Nashville in 1989, and I have to think even Mercury Records was surprised by its performance: double platinum sales, a Grammy Award and four charting hits. Those included covers of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine” and Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me.” And to this day you hear oldies stations regularly spin “Dumas Walker,” an original song about an old character from the country who owned a package store that became a hangout for playing marbles, gamblin’ and generally doing what country dudes do. The label thought it too regional but the band pressed for its release as a single, and it got them on the map as storytellers, not just recapitulators of great songs from the past. That said, their versions of hits like Waylon’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” are fresh and insightful.
The Headhunters (they took their name from the old, informal jazz and blues picking contests that would determine a local scene’s pecking order) arrive touting a new album of an old recording. In 2003, the Headhunters got together in a studio with legendary piano man Johnnie Johnson, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for his work with Chuck Berry. The sessions were en fuego but they were never released. Johnson died in 2005. The band recently teamed up with Alligator Records to put out the music under the title Meet Me In Bluesland. It’s just another sign that we’re in for a lively, soulful good time when the Kentucky Headhunters take the Roots stage.
The last time the mighty and amazing AJ Ghent played Roots (which was also the first time), he played his emotive electric lap steel guitar with just about every other artist on the bill. He was working at that point in Col. Bruce Hampton’s band, so he played with them. He played with the Mosier Brothers, because they love the guy. AJ played a full, featured set with his father Aubrey Ghent in a spare but electrifying duo, trading vocals and solos on American classics like “I’ll Fly Away.” So AJ was the young breakout star that night in July 2012, and since then he has launched his own six-piece band featuring his wife and sister on vocals and a funky rhythm section. He was tapped by Zac Brown to record on his Southern Ground label and tour with him. AJ is heir to a tradition known as Sacred Steel, stemming from some pockets of America where electric lap steel or pedal steel guitar became a substitute for or supplement to the organ in African American churches. AJ saw his father and grandfather play growing up in Florida and took up the instrument himself. Today he plays a range of music, but that gospel fervor is ever present.
Now I’m not sure if it’s a law or anything, but it seems like if you have a progressive string or bluegrass band from Colorado, it helps to have an aquatic reference and something about food in your name. So in the tradition of Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident comes Trout Steak Revival, a hot shot ensemble whose home base is Denver and the Front Range. In all seriousness the five-piece won the 2014 Telluride Band Contest. And their new album Brighter Every Day was produced by Infamous Stringdusters banjo master Chris Pandolfi. So that’s some street cred, or river cred I guess, right there.
The bill is made complete with music from old-time duo The Lowest Pair. This is one our booking team has been breathing heavily about. For me it’ll be a first time experience. The recordings of Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee are spare and emotionally transparent, a deeply rustic and craggy take on Gillian Welch territory. Sayeth their bio: “Be it Kendl’s punk roots, her admiration for the traditional American songbook or the gravitational pull she sensed drawing her to Olympia, it’s her combining these talents and creative impulses with Palmer’s Midwestern charm, the long winters spent listening to a steady diet of Townes Van Zandt and John Hartford and the strange moment of fate that left him with two inherited banjos as a young man; this combination has resulted in a uniquely original sound.”
I’m filing this preview from Los Angeles where, yesterday, I attended the fifth festival gathering of our friends The Bluegrass Situation. It was an epic all day affair with MCR Alums Sam Outlaw, Della Mae, Spirit Family Reunion and amazing LA band Dustbowl Revival. Plus a huge nighttime climax with the Lone Bellow, Punch Brothers and Dawes. I’m still reeling. It was stellar music in a lovely environment, the Greek Theater, outdoors in the hills below Griffith Observatory. With Hardly Strictly Bluegrass going on in San Francisco and IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh and Austin City Limits Festival too, this was undoubtedly the biggest weekend of the year for roots music. I hope you all caught something great and had a great time wherever they were. Are you ready for yet another lineup of interesting, intense, sincere and authentic music? I sure am.