This week we are going country. I got the chance to talk with the lead singer of one of my favorite country bands (if they can be called that), The Kentucky Headhunters: Doug Phelps!
Doug, what have you been up to?
Well, we were quite busy on the road touring up until just before the holidays this past year, and after that we enjoyed some time off with our families.
If anyone wants to know more about us, they can visit our website. There's a lot of info about us there and a lot of the history of the band, as well. Our tour schedule is there and we also have an online store where people can order our merchandise: shirts, hats, pictures, CD's, etc. We invite everyone reading this to visit our site!
I know what a Beatle is, I know what a Rolling Stone and a Lonesome Dove is. I even know what a Big & Rich is. But what is a Kentucky Headhunter?
Our name originated from a story about one of our favorite blues legends, Mr. Muddy Waters! He and his band left the Delta region in northeast Arkansas way back when to go to the windy city of Chicago to make their name in blues music. And one of the ways they did this was to go to the blues clubs there in Chicago and ask if they could sit in and play. This was their way of "auditioning" for the club owner and they were so good that they usually ended up getting a gig there. They, themselves, called this process, going out and chopping some heads, or "headchopping," because they would usually end up getting the gig and knocking someone else out of theirs! Thus, from their phrase "headchopping" they became nicknamed "The HeadHunters"!
When we put our band together, we didn't want to start from our immediate influences, which were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, (who got their name from Muddy Waters, too), Zeppelin, and Cream. We wanted to dig further back and find out who it was that influenced them to make them who they were musically, and as it turned out, they were all influenced in some way by the blues! We really liked the story about Muddy's band and how they became known as "The HeadHunters," so we decided that would be a great name for us, and it fit our music, which was blues based, but very aggressive, too.
When we signed our first record deal with Mercury Records, they did a name search to make sure no one else was using our name, and found that no one had it registered, but there were a couple of bands that had used it, so they suggested that we add something to it to make sure no one could come back on us and sue us over the name, so at the suggestion of our label president, Harold Shedd, we added Kentucky in front of HeadHunters, because we knew there were no other Kentucky HeadHunters! That's how we came up with our name!
Okay, we have to get this out of the way. What is up with your drummer's hair/sideburns?
We did the Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson was still hosting, and Doc Severnson was still the band leader, and the drummer for the Tonight Show was Ed Shaunessy. He had the thickest sideburns, like Elvis but thicker and longer. Fred started growing his in honor of Ed, but then Fred just kept letting his get longer and longer. Fred used to have the longest hair of us all when he was younger, and now, since he can't grow hair on his head, at least he still has long hair with his sideburns! They're actually long enough that he can tie them up over his head!
The Kentucky Headhunters were one of the first outlaw country bands. When "Dumas Walker" came out it was a huge hit. So what is this song about?
That song struck such a chord with so many people, even though it was a regional song about a fellow who lived in Moss, Tenn. Dumas owned a "package" store just across the Kentucky/Tennessee line on the Tennessee side. It was called "Dumas Walker's" and he just so happened to be a world class marble champion. It was a place where you could buy beer, snacks, fireworks on the 4th of July, and just a small place where the old timers could hang and visit. It was a part of the Kentucky boys' lives growing up, and we just decided to write a song about it and him as sort of an "ode to Dumas." We added the slaw burgers, fries, and a bottle of ski from a small cafe in Greensburg, Ky, where the guys used to eat at after playing shows in the area. After we added it all up, we came up with "Let's All Go, Down To Dumas Walker's" and the rest is history, as they say.
As an interesting side note, the label didn't even want to release that song, because they thought it was too regional, and that no one outside the area would get it, but what they didn't see, was the reaction we got to it every night that we played it in front of a crowd, and it didn't matter where we were playing either. What we discovered was that there was a "Dumas Walker's" in most everyone's lives, and by the time you added a good groove to it, people were hooked! It became our biggest hit to date. And to think, the label didn't even think it belonged on the record! Just goes to show you that a lot of the times, they don't know anymore about this business than you do!
How did you get involved in Liberty n' Justice "Welcome To The Revolution" album? How do you feel about that CD in general? (You can be honest since you've already been paid!)
Our lead guitar player, Greg Martin, told me that he had been contacted about the project, and that ya'll were interested in us participating on the project. He forwarded the info on to me since I'm the singer, and I then got in contact with Justin about it. I told him that I was definately interested in doing the project, and we worked out a time in my schedule when we were gonna be playing close to where the studio was, and I had some time off to stop by and sing on the track ya'll already had recorded. (Next time, ya'll just need to get the whole band to do a track for ya'll!)
My thoughts on the CD is that I loved the idea behind the project. I loved the fact that it would involve so many different artists, not just from the Christian music world, and that it would be a variety of music styles, too. And I did get paid and fed too! haha. You can't beat that!
You sent the 3 Chord guys t-shirts and they are thankful. But you sent Bill Tate and Gary Manuel large t-shirts and Justin an xx-large. Were you trying to tell him something?
Now, don't try to get me in trouble! Haha, no, I probably just sent you what I had available here at the house! No hidden meanings.
Name the 3 highest points and the 3 lowest points of your musical career to date.
The three highest include taking my first step in the professional world of playing music. I left in the middle of my fifth semester of college, when I was just 20 years old, and drove to Nashville to audition for a country music artist by the name of Ronnie McDowell. I was scared half to death, but went for it anyway, and got the job!
Second, being a part of forming our band, The Kentucky HeadHunters, on our own terms, and getting our first record deal with the music we had written ourselves, played ourselves, and produced ourselves. That's a rarity in the music business.
Thirdly, being fortunate enough to receive what we think to be the highest honor in the music business, to win a Grammy award. We didn't get into music to win awards, but when it happened, I think we were more happy for our families who were seeing the realization of all the work and dedication we had applied to our craft, and they had always been very supportive of us and our love of music, and this was a way they could recognize that all the hard work had accomplished something. We have been so blessed and fortunate to be able to pursue something that we love to do and to make a living doing it!
The low points include leaving the band when my brother decided that he was going to leave, back in July 1992. It was like getting a divorce from someone you didn't want to get a divorce from for me. I was devastated. To walk away from the one thing you had always wanted to do, which was to be in your own band, playing your own music, your own way … but since it was my brother, I went with him. But let me make it perfectly clear, I didn't want to leave!
Second, the rejection we started to receive from the industry, especially at radio. There were a bunch of stations and program directors that just didn't want to see country music going in the direction we were taking it. And I can understand that, but what I can't understand is why they didn't recognize that what we had going was real and not hyped at all. People were buying or records at an unbelievable rate, so we thought they would eventually realize that the people were out there listening and buying and that radio would eventually get on the bandwagon. But they held out long enough that it finally pushed us off the charts and we became an underground band. But we're still here. And still making records, too! You can't keep a good band down! haha.
Thirdly, losing our new deal at BNA, which is a subsidiary of RCA. I had just rejoined the band in 1996 and we had recorded an album and got a deal with them. No sooner had we released the first single, when they got back quotes and opinions of our new project from country radio. You should've read some of those comments! Oh my! Joe Galante didn't know what else to do but to let us go, because he knew he was not going to have any success on radio with us. But on an up note to this third low point, we ended up going to an independent label, Audium Entertainment, and released a new CD, and it did very well for them! We got a lot of airplay from some of the smaller market stations and our music struck a chord with a bunch of listeners again, and we sold pretty well for an independent project, and had a couple of our videos make it all the way to the number one spot on their countdown. So, for every low point, you just have to hang in there and keep swinging! You can't hit the ball if you don't take a swing!
As you mentioned, at the height of the Headhunters' popularity back in 1992, you and your brother left to start The Brother Phelps. Everyone knows hindsight is 20/20 but still, if you could go back in time, what would have you done differently, if anything?
I don't know if I could have done anything different, but I wish we could've worked out our differences of opinions. We were being pulled in so many different directions at that time, and our goals were still the same, but we just all had different ideas on how we thought we should get there, and we faced one too many obstacles that we couldn't get through, and unfortunately, it drove my brother away. If it had been anyone else but my brother, I would've stayed put, but you know the saying, blood is thicker than water. Richard would have done the same thing if it had been Fred deciding he was leaving. But the bottom line is that it's my humble opinion that we were given a gift of having this band from the good Lord above, and we blew it!
"Pickin' On Nashville" was certified Platinum in only seven months. You were first Country group to do this, it also became CMA "Album of the Year" 1990. What has changed since 1990 musically in the country market and why aren't The Headhunters still getting massive radio airplay?
Well, we were just a bit ahead of our time, I think, when you look back on it now. Our influence is all over country radio now. There are all kinds of acts that aren't afraid to put some rock and blues into there music now. I hear the influence all the time. But we can't get arrested at country radio. Here's my analogy: the ground is always hardest when it's first plowed, but when the plow runs through the field after that, it's much easier! We were the first to plow our particular mixture of music at country radio, and it was hard on some of radio to accept it, but after we proved it could be done successfully, it became much easier for acts to include the outside influences like ours and for them to be accepted. Maybe one of these days, someone will recognize that, but until then, we must keep the faith, and continue the good fight!
How involved are you in your local church, and what do you believe?
I don't get to go very much, due to our schedule, but when we can, we go to Two Rivers Baptist Church, across from Opryland in Nashville. I was raised in the Assembly of God church organization and my dad has been a minister since I was 2 years old. I believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, and that He died on the cross for our sins, and that He truly is the Son of God.
The Headhunters have won tons of awards which is your favorite?
I have to say again, that winning the Grammy Award is my favorite, because it is more representative of our peers in the music business, the whole music business. We were honored by each and every award we have received, but the Grammy is special!
How do you feel about Mercury Records?
I will forever be grateful to Mercury Records and Harold Shedd for sticking their necks out and believing in us when they really didn't have much of a leg to stand on. We were a huge risk for them to take, but Harold told us our music deserved a chance to be heard! Thanks Harold and Mercury Records!
What style of music do you prefer? What CD are you listening to right now?
My musical tastes are just like our music, vast and varied. I love the blues, I love the Beatles and the Stones, Zepplin and Cream, ZZ Top and Marshall Tucker, James Taylor and early Elvis, Hank Williams, Sr. and Lefty Frizzell. Let's put it this way: I love the blues, I love rock 'n' roll, I love mostly older country, and bluegrass, too! R&B and soul, southern gospel and Christian rock. Starting to get the picture??
I have most recently been listening to Doyle Bramhill, II. What a rockin' CD that is!
Your last album was "Soul." I own this CD and this is not a country album. What is going on with this record?
Again, it's just another part of our influences growing up and listening to music. We are just products of all our musical influences from our past and even from what we enjoy currently, and "Soul" was what came out of us on this past session.
You toured with Hank Jr. Any good stories?
Of course, but none I can share with you! haha.
What does 2005 and beyond hold for musician Doug Phelps?
We do have a new project that is supposed to be released sometime this year, hopefully, around April. We were approached by Sony Publishing over the winter to see if we would be interested in going through their catalog and picking out 15 songs that we could redo and rearrange HeadHunter style, and we jumped at the opportunity. We had a ball going through their catalog of music. They now own Acuff/Rose Publishing, which is all the old classic country songs like Hank, Sr. and such, so we chose songs from Hank, Buck Owens, Roger Miller, The Everyly Brothers, even a Patsy Cline song that now has a completely different arrangement! It's very interesting and very different. Sony wanted it so they could pitch new versions of old, classic songs, but as a complete project, it turned out really well, and so we've found a label for it to be released on, and I look forward to it getting out there for public comsumption. Be looking for a new video, as well, to go along with the new release.
And finally a Liberty n' Justice 4-ALL Word Association. We mention a name or thing, and you give us your thoughts.
Greg Martin (Kentucky Headhunter)
One of the great guitarists of his day! He plays with so much feel and soul. He's a combination of Eric Clapton, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Chuck Berry, and Freddie and Albert King, with a dash of B.B. thrown in for good measure!
Hank Williams Jr.
A good friend who put us on tour with him early on when we were still very controversial. Rowdy, but one on one, very interesting to talk to. He has some great, old stories from when he was a kid and hanging around all the country music greats!
Ricky Lee Phelps
My brother, whom I love. A wandering soul who has one of the most distinctive voices around. I miss him out here with us tremendously!
One of the nicest, friendliest persons you'll ever meet, and someone I will eternally be grateful to for giving a 20 year old kid a chance to follow his music dream. And he has one of the most versatile singing voices of his day!
A great voice for traditional country, which was dead until he came along in the mid 80's and revived it!
Fred Young (Kentucky Headhunter)
One of the most interesting persons you'd ever meet! One of the best and most entertaining drummers you'll ever see! He's a combination of John Bonham, Ginger Baker, and Tommy Aldridge all wrapped into one!
Justin Murr (Liberty n' Justice)
Don't know Justin as well as the others, but he gave me the opportunity to work on their project. I enjoyed getting to know him and I liked where he was coming from with his ideas about music and the project we were working on.
Johnnie Johnson (blues pianist)
One of the father's of rock 'n' roll music. It was his band when he hired Chuck Berry to play with him. A great blues and jazz pianist and someone who takes you up a notch just to be around him, especially when we have the honor to bring him up on the stage with us and play music with him. He takes you to a whole other level!
Someone we've enjoyed listening to from his days with Wet Willy, and someone we always have work with us on our recording sessions. One of the greatest voices in soul and R&B you'll ever hear coming out of a white man! Jimmy's got soul!
Right place, right time! If it had not been for her hook up with Mutt at that time, I don't think she would've had the success she's had. She's got a great voice, but it took the combination of the two to make it the success it has become.