The Kentucky Headhunters are the surprise addition to this year’s Ramblin’ Man Festival main stage line-up – touring the UK for the first time in their 48-year history. RUSHONROCK editor Simon Rushworth spoke exclusively to co-founder and frontman Richard Young ahead of Sunday’s set.
RUSHONROCK: How have you been building up to your Ramblin’ Man main stage appearance?
RICHARD YOUNG: We’ve just played the Calgary Stampede. It’s the biggest rodeo in North America. It was a real honour to play that show. We were so excited to do it but then these are exciting times for the Headhunters. We played two more big festivals in Canada before flying over to the UK. The band hasn’t made a trip like this since the 1990s – needless to say a lot of time has passed under the bridge since then. I’m just hoping we can do ourselves justice. We’re joking about it but the fact remains that some of us are in our 60s and we can’t go at it like we did in our 30s!
RUSHONROCK: But aren’t you afraid of flying?
RY: John Fred [Young, son and drummer with Black Stone Cherry] said I’ll just have to suck it up and come over. We’re very excited about visiting the UK. It’s our first time and for a while we never believed it would happen. It’s a bit of a running joke at this point but a lot of that has to do with me: I just didn’t want to fly.
RUSHONROCK: So what changed?
RY: We lost our father in April of this year. He was a very wise man. He was a teacher who used a lot of amazing ways to teach. But instead of picking out the star students for special treatment he had an ability to identify the little guy – the quiet guy at the back – and help them to fulfil their potential. He had these kids for two years in seventh and eighth grade and spent more time working with them to get the best out of them. And 90% of those kids became responsible citizens working in every profession. He taught them about history, English, art and geography. He had never been to the places he brought alive in class but he wished he’d been able to travel. And before he died he talked to me about all of the opportunities I’d missed and all of the places I hadn’t visited because of my fear of flying.
RUSHONROCK: So we owe these European dates to your late father?
RY: Right. After he passed away I suddenly said to myself ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to fly’. And I’m not just doing it for myself – I’m doing it for my brother and the rest of the band. I hadn’t been in a plane for 34 years before we flew to Scandinavia to play Sweden Rock this year. The rest of the guys said I rode that plane like I rode one every day of my life so someone, somewhere was looking out for me. But I might get on a plane somewhere, some day and just get straight off again. Who knows?
RUSHONROCK: Could The Kentucky Headhunters have been a far bigger band if it wasn’t for your phobia?
RY: My fear of flying did hold us back. The funniest one was when the folks in Japan wanted us to play some kind of military event. They offered us an obscene amount of money and promised us a great time. We were going to stay in Tokyo and spend five or six days there in five star hotels and the military was going to fly us over. But I wouldn’t tell the rest of the guys. I couldn’t handle the prospect of flying there. They found out about six months later and that didn’t make me the most popular member of the band. But I’m working to get over it. Every day I’m working to beat that fear.
RUSHONROCK: The line-up at Ramblin’ Man must help take your mind off those air miles…
RY: The Ramblin’ Man line-up is incredible. The day we play is going to be a great day of music. We’re extra excited for that one because Black Stone Cherry are the headliners. I played a key role in getting that band off the ground – my brother and I really helped those boys in the early days. I helped them to write the first two albums, co-produced their debut and got them in front of the right people and then all of a sudden it was really hard for me. I’d invested so much into those guys and then my fear of flying meant I couldn’t enjoy the fruits of their labours. They are popular in the US but not as successful as they are in the UK and Europe.
RUSHONROCK: Why is that?
RY: In the US they don’t put the same emphasis on the artists and their music as they do in the UK. It’s really sad. There is too much coming at us all of the time and not enough time to appreciate and digest what’s already there before we’re told to move onto the next thing. The UK loved Black Stone Cherry from day one. But I was never around to see that success. It was bittersweet. As the band started to blow up in the UK and Germany I was sat at home watching their progress from afar via YouTube. I wanted to be there. The band begged me to be there. But I couldn’t get over my fear of flying. I just couldn’t. But I nurtured that band and now, finally, I’m getting to come over to the UK and see them perform in front of their British fans. I’m very excited about playing Ramblin’ Man with The Kentucky Headhunters but most of all I’m excited about realising a dream – watching BSC do their stuff on the big stage.
RUSHONROCK: Thin Lizzy play the previous day – how much do you love that band?
RY: Thin Lizzy was one of our biggest influences growing up. They’d played a few club dates but the first time they did a proper tour of America was when they came over as support for Queen. Queen were at the top of their game at this point. Me and the guys went to see Queen and fell in love with the opening act. We met all of the guys including Scott Gorham and Phil Lynott and they were all just super guys. We were in a band and they enjoyed talking to us about the music business and after that they became a huge influence. It’s such a shame that we’re not playing on the same day as Lizzy – I would have loved to see that band live at Ramblin’ Man. My brother and John Fred went to see them seven or eight years ago in Louisville during the period that Tommy Aldridge was playing drums. We knew Tommy from his days in Black Oak Arkansas.
RUSHONROCK: You’re a Southern Rock band but did British rock inspire you from day one?
RY: We were always into British rock. A lot of bands have a distinctive sound but when we were kids all we were interested in was becoming like one of the big English rock bands. We’d been listening to Free for years and loved them. But of course all of these bands were based in London or other cities in the UK and they were a long, long way from Kentucky. We never thought we’d ever see these bands but we fashioned our sound – or at least we thought we did – on those great bands of the late 60s and early 70s.
RUSHONROCK: Is that sound and influence evident now?
RY: Apparently so! We’ve just finished our 14th album and that should be coming out in October. The A&R guy who’s looking after us said we sounded like Mott The Hoople! Can you believe that! For anybody to compare anything that we do to a band like that is just crazy. We listened to US bands as kids but it was when we heard the Beatles in 1964 that we made our minds up that making music was what we wanted to do.
RUSHONROCK: Is it right you’ve been gigging for nearly 50 years now?
RY: Yep, Fred [Young, drums] was 11 when he was in his first band! It sounds far too young to be in a band – it gives the impression they were just a bunch of kids fooling around. But they were good! He was pretty big for a little kid and played with a double bass drum – even back then. That was how we started.
RUSHONROCK: And when did you decide that the music business was for you?
RY: When Zeppelin came along they just blew our minds. We had heard of them – we used to visit a little record store near where we lived and that’s what we relied upon for our music education. When we heard the first Zeppelin record in there it just knocked our socks off. After that we were obsessed. Our parents had a console with a record player included. Fred, Greg [Martin, lead guitar], Anthony [Kenney, ex-bass player] and me were at the house most Saturdays and we’d tune into WLS out of Chicago. It was 50,000 watts and reached Kentucky! One Saturday Whole Lotta Love kicked in and it was a pivotal moment for all of us. That’s when we realised we had to be like that. I don’t mean we had to sound like them – of course we didn’t and we don’t – but we wanted to be like them in every respect. As a young kid you pick a band early on and model yourself on them. You appreciate the stage look, the performance and, of course, the music. And it influences everything that you do.
RUSHONROCK: And was it the right sound and image for you?
RY: You make your choices when you’re 18 and then suddenly you’re 28 and it’s too late to turn back the clock. I’m not saying we wanted to – but we had a signature sound by then and we played in a certain way. We didn’t have a major record deal until we’d been together 21 or 22 years and originally we were called the Itchy Brothers. That was a balls-to-the-wall metal band and when I go back and listen to the tapes it sounds fantastic! John Fred came over a while back with his manager and the guy wanted to hear the stuff from the 70s. These were songs we recorded in 76/77/78 – around that time. He loved it and said he could get us a deal with that band right now in a flash! And that’s the greatest thing about having all of these years under our belts as a band – we can dig deep into the archives and rediscover stuff that sounded great back then and still sounds great now. So we did change our sound a little over the years.
RUSHONROCK: Before Ramblin’ Man you play the SummerTyne Festival on Tyneside – why’s that a special gig?
RY: We’re playing the SummerTyne Festival on Friday and I know that’s where Mark Knopfler is from. Not many people know this but we had a chance to open up for Dire Straits in the early 90s: we really loved that band just as MTV was getting big. When the Headhunters took off in North America and Canada we’d always dreamed of joining one of those big British bands on tour across the world and then all of a sudden here’s this great opportunity to play with a fantastic band fronted by Mark Knopfler. Some of the shows those cats were playing back then were huge! They were going to take us on their European tour and I like to think I would have had the guts to take us on that tour – in spite of my fear of flying – but then the Gulf War broke out. It affected how everyone got around and we never got the chance to do that tour. It was a bitter let down for the guys but in the back of my mind that little brain of mine was telling me it was a good thing because I wouldn’t have to fly. Of course it wasn’t a good thing at all. But that’s what I told myself at the time.