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| 2 March 2022 | Reply

According to a recent press release: “The Kentucky Headhunters are riding high with their latest album, That’s a Fact, Jack!, which is released on their own label, Practice House Records. It’s their usual heady mix of Southern-fried rock with a dash of blues and a bit of country. Greg Martin is one of the co-foundering members and is the lead guitarist for the Kentucky Headhunters, whose kick-ass blend of Southern rock, country rock, rock ‘n’ roll and the blues has earned them worldwide critical and audience acclaim for over 35 years and counting. The Kentucky Headhunters formed in 1986 (from their original incarnation known as Itchy Brother) and, based on the strength of their live shows and a demo that featured both original songs and country covers, signed to Mercury Records in 1989. Pickin’ on Nashville also earned the band a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, Best New Vocal Group award from the Academy of Country Music (ACM), and Album of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year awards from the Country Music Association (CMA). (The band has won three CMA awards overall.) In addition, it earned a double-platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Not a bad way to start a career.” We get Greg on the phone to discuss new music, get a detailed history of the band, and much more…

Toddstar: Thank you so much for taking time out for me Greg. I really appreciate it. It’s always good to talk to a musical icon.

Greg: Oh, man. Thank you, you’re just too kind. I’m just a survivor, I guess.

Toddstar: A bit ago we were talking about that how the music business has changed a lot since you guys started this off in 1968.

Greg: Back then we were concerned if we’re playing the skating rink and were going to get paid $75. Or if we played a factory picnic. We played everything from fall festivals, to picnics, to skating rink and to Toys for Tots shows and things like that. Of course, it was all training ground. We just didn’t realize it for what was to come, so to speak.

Toddstar: We’ll get to all the other fun stuff, but just building on that, it just, to me, it speaks volumes about the bands like The Kentucky Headhunters. Bands went out and pounded the streets and played every gig you could just to get that little bit of exposure. You guys didn’t have a TV show that you could jump on and sing, land a record deal, and stuff like that. Other than that, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your 50 years doing this?

Greg: The biggest factor in this whole equation is the internet. It’s changed everything. I first got email back in 1997 and was able to get on the internet. If you go back to the 90’s, you remember what the internet was like, the websites were very archaic. It was different… just a different world. Going back, when we got together, and I’ll just take you back to a little history of it, you can see where we’re going with it. We did get together in 1968. And the catalyst for that whole thing was a 4H talent show at high school. In 1968, I had this big apparition that I wanted to play music. I went to see this band and all of a sudden it all made sense to say I want to play guitar. I don’t want to play sports – I’d already tried to play baseball when I was a kid and got knocked down with a line drive and I said that’s enough of that. I started really getting serious about the guitar in 1968. Before that, I used to just knock around my brother and my cousin’s guitars and stuff like that. There were always guitars around the house. Nice guitars actually. My older brother Gary got married. He decided that he was going into bluegrass, so he bestowed on me a really nice 1955 or 1956 red Gretsch Silver Jet, which is worth a lot of money now. He hated the color so bad that he painted the guitar black. When he went into the bluegrass, he gave me the guitar. He gave me a Magnatone amplifier, and he gave me a box of 45 records and some albums. And it was Grateful Dead in the collection, Canned Heat, Lonnie Mack. In the 45 box, it was a lot of great stuff. BB King, Chuck Berry, Travis Womack. The guitar really got my attention. I knew that there was a different finish under that guitar. So I went on my aunt’s porch in Edmonton one Saturday afternoon and got some paint thinner, and I got that paint off and took it back to original state it was supposed to be in. Me and my dad put it back together. It was a great guitar. We’re talking about September, October 1968. Late October, early November of that year, I got on the school bus one morning and my cousin, Larry Sullivan, said, “Hey, we’re going to be doing a talent show.” I was a freshman in high school, but these guys I’m talking about were Richard and Larry, they were in the eighth grade. So they said, “We’re going to be doing a talent show and we’re going to be putting a little band together and everybody’s going to be dressed up like hippies.” He said there’s a fellow that just moved to Edmonton because his dad had to do some student teaching and get some credits. Lo and behold, it was Richard Young who I still play with today. Larry suggested that Richard and I get together. So one afternoon I walked down from the high school, which was just about a two-minute walk to the grade school. Richard was in the eighth. We hooked up in the kitchen at the cafeteria and with our guitars. We jammed on “Born To Be Wild,” “Sunshine Of Your Love,” “Hey Jude,” and I don’t know, maybe “Revolution.” We thought we can probably pull this off. So we got together with some other kids in school. We did this talent show. I don’t think we placed really high, but the cool thing that came out of that, it was the seeds to plant what’s going on now. Richard said, “Hey, I’ve got a band with my cousin, Anthony, and my brother, Fred, would you like to come out and jam with us? And I said, sure. So I went out and jammed with them and it was just magic from day one. They had a family connection. They had a groove. They just had it and it was just meant to be, it was just great. So anyway, that was the seeds. And we played together all through high school. In 1972 I graduated, I had to move to Louisville for a while. We played on and off; we never completely stopped playing together. Even if I could play with the guys, they were doing another band with other guys.

Greg: It was always a great relationship, and we always hooked up to jam. I came back into the fold in 1977. We went through a series of names. When I started with those guys, Richard, Fred, and Anthony, they were called The Truth. And then we went through a series of names… The Aftermath, Mandrake Velvet. We even did a TV show in Nashville called Young Country. We did “Crossroads” on there and Fred did a drum solo. We played every chance we could. We jammed at the old practice house. After 1972, I moved to Louisville, got a job at a printing company, and found pretty quick I didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I was supposed to do in life. The guys went on and they played with other people. We did get together in 1977 and record a little 45 record. We did a very early version of “Shotgun Effie,” which has been redone on the new album. We did another song called “Rock And Roller.” Due to the distance and my schedule and their schedule, it just didn’t work out. In 1977 they said, “Hey, one of the guys is quitting the band, would you want to move back?” It just worked out time wise. I had quit my job and I wasn’t doing anything, so I moved back and started playing with the guys again. We were called Itchy Brother and we were writing songs. If we did a cover, like, if we did “Satisfaction” by The Stones, or if we did “Route 66,” we would do it our own way. It was almost kind of like rewriting the song, but still being true to the melody. And we played really hard. We were being courted by Swan Song Records. Our first manager, Mitchell Fox was looking at Swan Song Records and he tried his best to help us get a deal. In 1978, I had to take another job for a little bit and work. We put it back together briefly in 1980-1981. And then the disco monster reared its head and put Itchy Brother on the shelf. We came close to getting a record deal with Swan Song. Unfortunately, John Bonham passed away, and Swan Song Records was put on the shelf for a little bit. We had to put our rock and roll dreams up for a while. We all did different things to prepare us for what was going to be The Kentucky Headhunters. In 1981, I took a gig with a country singer that was very popular at the time by the name of Ronnie McDowell. The very first day I started with him, Doug Phelps started. He is our singer now for The Headhunters. Richard went to work at Acuff-Rose writing songs. Fred ended up working with a country singer by the name of Sylvia. So all these things we did were just kind of training grounds for what was to be. In 1986, we decided we wanted to put Itchy Brother back together with our cousin, Anthony, but Anthony wasn’t really interested in going through the craziness again. We weren’t really looking for record deals at the time. We were just wanting to get out and play, but he had just gotten married. I suggested we bring Doug Phelps up and the guys were a little cautious because they didn’t know Doug that well. We got together in my basement in the spring of 1986, and it just seemed to click. We adopted Doug and we came up with the name The Kentucky Headhunters. We added Ricky a few months later and started writing songs. We started playing gigs in Nashville, Bowling Green, Louisville, just wherever we could. We did a showcase in Nashville in the latter part of 1988 at Douglas Corner. We had recorded Pickin’ On Nashville. I’m not sure if you realized this but Pickin’ On Nashville was originally just a cassette with eight songs. It was funded by a gentleman by the name of Jonathan DW Lyle, out of Virginia. That’s another long story, but I won’t put you through it – but man, there’s so many stories here connected. He saw me and Doug playing with Ronnie McDowell, and we were playing “Hideaway” by Freddy King, and he was a blues fanatic. He walked up to us after Ronnie’s gig and said, “You guys are into blues?” Then we start talking about The Headhunters and mentioned we had a band back in Kentucky and we do blues and rockabilly. We played him a tape and he just loved it and he funded the money to go into The Sound Shop in 1988 and record the Pickin’ On Nashville songs. We were selling them as a cassette at gigs and they started popping up around Nashville. People started getting interested in the band. Larry Hamby at Sony Records heard it, loved it, and said I need to see you guys live. We set up a showcase at Douglas Corner in the latter part of 1988. Me and Doug had just gotten off the road with Ronnie. We had played in Richmond, Virginia the night before, and we barely made it back in time to do the showcase. We had to dress in our cars. We rolled our gear in, and Leroy Parnell who was showcasing for another label, said, “I was watching you guys roll your gear in and I was really wondering what you guys were up to, who you were, and all this. And then you guys started playing… heavy metal, blue grass.” So anyway, we played pretty well. Larry Hamby at Sony thought we were more of a rock band. We sounded different than what the cassette did. We had matured since we recorded. I don’t know why we sounded different, but it was just too rock and roll for his ears. Harold Shedd who had recently taken over Mercury Records, was there and heard something he liked. He took a cassette tape and a contract started going back and forth and there you go. That’s how we got to kind of where we’re at today in a way.

Toddstar: You guys are still putting music out. In fact, last October you dropped That’s a Fact Jack. As you mentioned, has “Shotgun Effie” on it. This is a great album, especially for a band that has made their way with a certain sound. You do it repeatedly without sounding rehashed.

Greg: Thank you.

Toddstar: How is it you guys do that?

Greg: Man, we listen to other music. I don’t really keep up with what’s trendy these days or anything like that, but I think it’s just ingrained in us to be who we are. It’s just a very simple thing. When we get together it’s like Coca-Cola man. There are ingredients that make it Coca-Cola. When this band was put together in 1986, it was actually us four. There was a time that we did have Ricky Phelps, great singer, a big part of our early success story. He was with us for two albums. He and Doug. We brought in Anthony Kenny, our cousin from the old Itchy Brother days and another singer by the name of Mark Orr. That changed the flavor a bit, but I think with this four-piece band that we have, it’s just got an ingrained sound and I’m not bragging on the band, but it has good songs. We work hard making sure that we do them the best we can, and we’ve just been doing it for a minute.

Toddstar: Quite a couple minutes, actually.

Greg: We’ve been The Kentucky Headhunters since 1986, but we go back to 1968. There’s that equation as well.

Toddstar: Going back to the new album, That’s a Fact Jack, I love all the stuff on here. The title track grabs me every time I listen through it. It’s easy in the days of computers, internet, and everything else, but if this was an LP or a cassette, I’d have to try and find song seven. How did you guys actually come up with the specific track list Was there a rhyme or reason to it?

Greg: Well, thank you. Richard brought that song to the studio when we started last year. That was something his dad used to say if he was trying to make a point about something. At the end of whatever he said, he would ass “Well that’s a fact Jack.” He was a big influence on him, Richard’s dad, James Howard Jones. God bless him. He left us in 2016. It’s a really strong tune. It’s got the southern rock element, the rock and roll element. Richard sings it really well. He made a good point in the lyrics. It’s very relevant with what’s going on, especially today.

Toddstar: It’s that heavy metal bluegrass.

Greg: (laughs) Things do seem like they’re about ready to go off the track this morning. When you look at the news. I was thinking initially that “Gonna Be Alright” was going to be our big thing here because I thought things were going to be all right. Which I think they will, you know. There’s this rollercoaster ride that we’re going through. Going through COVID and now we got the war going on over in Ukraine, all that stuff. So “That’s a Fact Jack,” it’s a pretty heavy song, man. I think it’s a great song.

Toddstar: I do too. You guys dropped this in the fourth quarter of 2021, and it’s been a few years since the previous release. How different did you guys approach this one? Not only because of just the timing, but the fact that this was post COVID, pandemic, shutdowns, and everything else. How did you guys approach the songwriting and recording? Was it any different from the older stuff or did you take a different look at it?

Greg: Well, it was different because if you go back to 2019, everything was normal. We worked our normal amount of dates. We were on the road. Life was as we knew it. We went into 2020 and we worked a little bit early, in January and February. I think we did about four shows. Our last pre-pandemic show was at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, mid-February. Then we had three weeks off. We thought we’d go home, everybody needs to do what they need do, and then we’re going to start touring again. We get home and all of a sudden, we’re hearing about the virus, we’re hearing about the pandemic, and the dates started falling off or getting moved. And the rest of 2020, as you know, it was lockdown. We ended up playing nine shows that year. I actually missed the last show of 2020 because I had COVID and the guitarist from Black Stone Cherry, Chris Robertson, went out and filled in for me. My case wasn’t that bad. I was just fatigued and had some sinus stuff, which I have today. Always have sinus stuff going on. So what was going to happen, Todd, we’re going to try to get back together at the end of 2020 and try to get together at the old practice house like we normally do, and people would bring in songs, ideas for songs. We would jam and come up with stuff. After I got COVID, the pandemic was going on, and it was already the holidays. We decided that we would just wait till January. We ended up going straight into the studio in February of last year and people would bring whatever they had, and we would work them up on the floor and hit record. And we were able to get everything. This stuff was not rehearsed except a little bit before we played them, but it wasn’t like we got together at the practice house and rehearsed. Normally that was the way we did things we would get together there and we would rehearse things. And then you kind of know them in your head. On Safari, which was released in 2016, we already had recorded little demos at the practice house, and we knocked that album out really quick. This one took a little longer because we didn’t know what we were doing like we normally did. There’s a beauty to that as well because there’s an energy and an urgency when you do it like that and it’s not over rehearsed. So it’s a product of the pandemic because we were just crawling out the wreckage so to speak. I think “Gonna Be Alright” was brought in by Fred and TJ from the Georgia Thunderbolts. They’d written that. We were learning these songs on the floor. Except for “Shotgun Effie.” Me, Richard, and Fred wrote that in 1973 and recorded a little 45 record and us three knew it, but Doug Phelps had no clue about that song. It was always an adventure for every one of us man, trying to get into this. But like I say, they were all fresh to us when we started playing them because we had never played them before.

Toddstar: Based on the end results Greg, you guys were able to pull it together quickly and easily because this is a very cohesive album from top to bottom, keeping that Kentucky Headhunter’s vibe and groove alive, without the music sounding like it’s been done before.

Greg: Thank you. I felt like we did a good job. After we record something, I take a break from it unless we have to work it up. We’re going to have to go back and listen to this stuff when we start bringing songs into the live set. We were literally like session players learning this stuff on the spot. The only song we played last year on the road because it was released in October “Let’s All Get Together and Fight” which closes the album. It’s Richard’s unique look at holiday season when families get together.

Toddstar: I know you’re busy. I have one more for you before we let you go. You guys knocked it out of the park with your first release. You won a Grammy, you have some CMAs, and stuff like that along the way. Is that Grammy still as important to you personally today as it was when you got it back in 1990?

Greg: Yes sir. That’s a great life achievement, which honestly, I never even thought about. I believe I’m speaking for the rest of the guys as well. Going into this, we just wanted to play, write, have a good band, and hopefully someday make a record. We had no idea. We never thought about Grammy’s, CMA’s, ACM’s, American Music Awards, and things like that. I believe out of all of the awards it’s one thing that was a life achievement and it means a whole lot. Matter of fact, it’s behind me here. I try not to let it out of my site too much.

Toddstar: I was going to ask if it was still on display in the house.

Greg: I’m looking at it. It’s right behind me. That first album, I don’t know, it’s a very special album. God knows how we did it, but we were working very hard back then. As you say, we were playing everywhere, and we were all doing different things to stay alive. I was still out with Ronnie McDowell when we signed our deal, me and Doug, and Fred was playing with Sylvia. Richard was writing and we were doing different things and doing whatever it was to stay alive. Somehow everything was together when we went in that studio in 1988 and started on Pickin’ On Nashville because it sure built a strong foundation for us.

Toddstar: It sure did. The foundation that all these years later. The different incarnations, you’re clocking over 50 years. So kudos to you guys for doing something right.

Greg: Thank you. And we’re still out there. We’ve done a couple shows this year. We’ll get together in March and start touring again. We’ll tour the rest of the year. We did the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in early December and I believe it will be on Circle TV. Our performance will be on Circle TV in April. I do a radio show called the Lowdown Hoedown, been doing that for 20 years at a classic rock station in Bowling Green, Kentucky, WDNS, every Monday night from 7p – 10p. It’s a blues show, but I take liberties with the genre. I play R & B, blues, classic, sometimes classic rock, whatever. It streams on the internet It’s a fun thing, man. You could check that out and I’ve had some real awesome guests, man. I’ve had everybody from Peter Frampton, Billy Gibbons, Brian Setzer, Ed King, Elvin Bishop, all kind of folks on the show. The station covers really just the terrestrial part, just the FM part of it, it covers south central Kentucky. And it’s funny, you’ll get people driving I-65 and you’ll get little letters. “I just happened to catch your show as I was on I-65 and I can’t believe you were playing Jo Jo Gunne, or you were playing Freddy King and then you followed it up with Johnny Cash.” You get some really neat letters or emails. Emails now, but I’ve got a few letters in the mailbox. But radio, that’s another facet of just sharing music with people and it’s fun.

Toddstar: Absolutely. Well, listen Greg, I appreciate the time. I’m a big fan and appreciate what you guys have done.

Greg: Yes. People can check us out online. You can see where we’re at. Thank you so much. Have a great day.







Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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