MUSIC / Finger lickin' good: The Kentucky HeadHunters' fear of flying prevents them making British fans. Jasper Rees thinks they could do better

THERE ARE only a few background facts that anyone needs know about the Kentucky HeadHunters. They come from Kentucky, and they adapted the other half of their name from the 'headchopping' tag assigned to Muddy Waters's band, who would turn up at clubs and blow the resident band off the stage.

Their brief recording career has brought favourable notices over here in both Country Music People and Kerrang Someone once advised that they entitle one of their albums Lock Up Your Sheep, a suggestion probably not unconnected to the fact that they have at least as much hair as a sizeable flock. A lot of it is facial. Plus, they don't like flying.

The band's third album on Mercury, the festively titled Rave On]], has just been released in Britain but without much in the way of fanfare, which must have something to do with the fact that air travel is not on their agenda. Whether they have kept so close to their roots that they are grounded, or whether they're plain terrified, is open to question. Whatever, they're not remotely timid when it comes to playing loud, locomotive country rock.

Rave On]] sticks with the formula laid down by its two predecessors - a few souped-up covers (Carl Perkins's 'Dixiefried' and the king of bluegrass Bill Monroe's 'Blue Moon of Kentucky') with twice as many rowdy originals, including 'Just Ask Fo' Lucky', co-written with the blues / rock legend Lonnie Mack.

There can't be many outfits that count Merle Haggard and Cream among their formative influences. Call it what you will, and many have - psychobilly blues, garage-country funk, hillbilly boogie, jukejoint rock - the mix is eclectic enough to keep all sorts of people happy.

You'd never know it, from their short discography, but most of the band's currrent line-up started playing in and around Kentucky when Cream were still an item. Two of them, the drummer Fred Young and rhythm guitarist Richard Young, are brothers and the lead guitarist, Greg Martin, is a cousin.

They called themselves Itchy Brother, after Fred's favourite cartoon character, and soldiered triumphantly round the southern roadhouse circuit through the 1970s. They were within spitting distance of becoming the first American act to sign to Led Zeppelin's Swansong label, and then John Bonham died, while in their own country they encountered that ol' pigeonhole problem of being too raunchy to be called country and too tuneful to be called rock.

Itchy Brother called it a day in 1981, but five years later they ran into another couple of brothers, Doug and Ricky Lee Phelps, the similarly shaggy progeny of a preacher from the Missouri-Arkansas border.

Ricky Lee's voice seemed to gel, and with the stagnation of country and western in the early 1980s, the Kentucky HeadHunters became the first southern rock band to sign to a Nashville label - 21 years after the formation of Itchy Brother. When success did finally knock on their barn door, it probably helped that Fred's mutton chops, dangling some way below his collar, were by now in place.

Pickin' On Nashville, first touted around as a demo tape, was released on Polygram in 1989, and picked up gongs at the major awards ceremonies - the CMAS, the Grammys and the American Music Awards. It also sold way beyond the band's expectations. When asked about garnering all those gold and platinum records, Doug Phelps replied: 'Heck, I was thrilled to have a black one.'

Their next black one, 'Electric Barnyard', beefed up the quaint redneck anthem 'The Ballad of Davy Crockett' and Norman Greenbaum's cheery 1970 hit 'Spirit in the Sky'. They labelled side one 'Steppin' In It' and side two 'Walkin' In It'. Clearly, nationwide recognition couldn't wrench the Heads away from what their feet were used to treading on (and in). They still practise in the farm outhouse given to the Youngs by their grandma Effie.

The Phelps brothers had their own roots to cling to. Before work started on the current album, which is probably their best, they parted company with the band to form Brother Phelps, leaving the rump group with vacancies on bass and vocals.

Although Anthony Kenney, another cousin of the Youngs, and Mark Orr had both performed with Itchy Brother and were welcomed smoothly back into the fold, the Kentucky HeadHunters' future is far now from certain.

Rave On]] has failed to take America by storm and the band, having got used to being a headlining act, are said to be grateful for the lifeline thrown to them by label-mate Billy Ray Cyrus, whom they are supporting on his current American tour. Perhaps fans miss the antics of Ricky Lee, an erstwhile magic shop owner who incorporated juggling and unicycling into the live act.

If the band could only dredge up the courage to board an east-bound plane, you can't help feeling that they could ensure their own salvation.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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