MV MEETS: THE KENTUCKY HEADHUNTERS

Richard Young on new albums, touring Europe and the farmland of Great Britain 

Ringing rock stars is sometimes a tricky business. Sometimes you get them on the end of a busy day where people like your humble scribe have been asking them questions of varying degrees of inanity for hours and they are a bit cranky.

Dialling the number to get hold of Kentucky Headhunters stalwart Richard Young, we know only two things. In Kentucky where he is, its 11am in the morning, and also that he’s due in the studio as soon as he’s finished talking to MV.

As the dial tone kicks in, you think about wrapping things up quickly, so as to let the poor chap get back to working with the brilliantly named Dirty Soul Revival. It takes about a second into the call, however, to realise that whatever plans you had, you can forget.

“Andy! I am glad you called” laughs Richard Young in his those deep, southern tones, the rich, deep quality of it a legacy of the fact that, as he puts it: “I used to smoke like a freight train until I had a heart attack on stage when I was 45”.

He’s a naturally gregarious type of chap, but the friendliness with which he greets MV isn’t solely a legacy of the manners and hospitable nature that those from that part of America always seem to possess. It turns out that we might have got him in trouble with Mrs Young, plus left him questioning his sanity.

He’s glad we called today, it turns out, because yesterday he’d forgotten which day of the week it was. “I said to my wife yesterday,” he laughs – and spend any time in Richard’s company and you’ll find he laughs a lot – “that guy from England never called, and she looks at me and says: ‘Richard it’s Wednesday….!’ I dunno, I’d lost track of the days in the studio, but hey, I got an extra day now!”

MV had been keen to talk to Richard since seeing them on their first ever UK tour back in the summer. A wonderfully fun evening that has since been followed up by the “On Safari” record that isn’t just one of the best Southern Rock records of the year, but one of the best records full stop. Richard, it seems is just keen to talk about music in general.

The place to start though, undoubtedly is the tour.

As everyone by now probably knows, the reason Richard Young has never, in any of his bands, toured Europe is that he is scared of flying. That is something that unless you suffer from it yourself you will never truly understand (this writer is totally gets it and is completely familiar with the embarrassment of telling people you can’t do things or go to places) and is about the only thing in our chat that isn’t a laughing matter.

So why now, and was it was it worth it?

The answer to the first part of that is a little more complicated than the second and largely revolves around Richard’s son John Fred.

Better known as the drummer in Black Stone Cherry, John Fred was the catalyst for the trip. “It started with those guys,” recalls Young. “Chris [Robertson – singer in BSC] and John Fred were always getting asked over here about the Headhunters, and when they got back from the last trip they did at the start of this year, they are saying to us: ‘you guys gotta go over there and play’ so I just said ‘yes, ok.’ Now, I’ll be honest, I only said yes to take the heat off myself. I never thought anything was going to come of it,” he laughs again. “Then they told us we were playing the Sweden Rocks’ festival and it’s like “man….!”

That festival was followed with a string of club shows in the UK, which presented its own set of problems. “In America” explains the guitarist. “We are able to tour with a big bus, and that means we can do the show and sleep on the bus until lunchtime. In England we couldn’t do that, so we are in the hotel and we’ve got to get up at 7am to go 200 miles to the next show. We aren’t morning people, my brother Fred [Headhunters Drummer] gets tired in shows, doing his solo and whatnot, so he likes his sleep, but by the end of it even he got used to it, he’s going ‘yeah I like getting up early!’”

The trip was clearly special to the guitarist for many reasons, not least of which it gave him a chance to sample some of his family history, the Young’s before they emigrated, originated from the North of England, and for Richard it was a chance to explore some of that: “It was very special to be able to go up to the border and see where we started, for sure. My brother and I enjoyed that very much.”

Oddly, it seems, they also developed a soft spot for the farmland of Great Britain too. “We have a farm, where I live, we are farming people, and the quality of your fields was something I wasn’t expecting at all, plus you know, I never saw a barbed wire fence in all the time I was there. That’s amazing to me, all those 14th century stone walls! Good luck trying to find someone to make that now!”

In addition to the bus and the lack of a lie in, the tour presented not just the Young brothers, but the Headhunters in general, some issues: “Time was tight,” recalls Richard. “We had like 11 shows in 11 days. We used to do that when we were younger men, but come on….we are in our early 60s! I was very proud of us for being able to do that.”

This fresh attitude also manifested itself into “On Safari”. Richard is predictably modest when MV tells him how much we enjoyed the record, but is more effusive when asked about a couple of its tracks. We are particularly interested in its opener “Beaver Creek Mansion” the latest in a long line of songs from some of our favourite artists that lead us to think that we know the Deep South despite never having been there and living in the English Midlands. So, we ask, how like home is that track? “You know, very.” Comes the reply. “The pace of life, everything here. That song is about us looking back into our childhood on the farm. Us kids would camp in the buildings in the summer when we got older and it’s about those memories. My brothers, my sister and I working on the farm and our mother calling us in for dinner, things like that.”

Although the whole album is magnificent, there is another piece that we want to discuss with the writer. “Crazy Jim” – one of the standout cuts – is about a man who is ridiculed for trying to give people rocks to make their lives better, and we are keen to find out if it was about a real person. It was, Richard confirms, and adds: “This was in 1978 or so, and I had always had the idea to write that song, but you are dealing with history, and when you deal with history you have to get it right. You can’t go back and alter the facts. This time, I sat down to write it and it just came together in 15 minutes.”

Young has a poignant thought as to why this was. His dad died earlier this year during the planning for the album and tour and this has affected not just the album he says: “My father was not just the patriarch of the band but everything round here for about five counties. Everyone loved him very much, not just me and Fred but the other guys in the band too, and I like to think that his presence is on the album, it definitely felt special this time around.”

The tragic passing had more of a psychological effect too. As anyone who has lost a parent will tell you it is a time of great reflection. The death of Young Snr, acted as a catalyst for everything that followed too, as Richard explains. “My father was a very learned man,” he says. “He had three degrees, a huge collection of books and could talk eloquently on any subject, but he’d never been more than 500 miles outside of Kentucky and that was only to see my sister in College! Part of the reason for me going over to Europe was I didn’t want to say I hadn’t, you know. I wanted to do it for him.”

In the future, he wants to come back (“the shows went well, don’t you think?” he enquires) but when he does there’s just one stipulation: “Next time, we are having days off so we can look at the country, we are gonna make sure that happens!”

More immediately he’s finishing this record he’s working on and then the KYHeads as they are known are off on a cruise. Not just any old cruise, either. A rock legends one, headlined by Paul Rodgers and it’s something Richard is looking forward to: “Paul is my favourite singer, so it will be a pleasure to see him.” Then he adds, unprompted: “You know Free are one of those bands. They never go out of fashion. The guitarist in Dirty Soul Revival is wearing a t-shirt with Paul Kossoff on, that’s a measure of the legacy of the band.”

With that it really is time to go. The studio is waiting, but as we wish Richard all the best, there is a feeling that he is perhaps the most pleasant man on Planet Rock, and without breaking any confidences, MV texts him to thank him for his time later in the evening. Especially as this writer has a thick Brummie accent not far off Ozzy Osbourne on a bad day and it, coupled with the bad phone line made talking to him difficult.

It is a measure of the man that a couple of hours later he replied. It is also a measure of the man that amongst other things he said this. “Set goals. I had never done that until my father died. One of my goals was to get the album done. It kicks ass. Now I have one more goal. To spend time with my wife of 34 years, Cindy and my granddaughter, Scout (John Fred’s daughter).”

But just in case you think he’s ready to retire, he then adds: “….then to play 100 shows and record a new album.”

He’ll do all that, and more, don’t doubt it. He’s Richard Young and he’s the King of Southern rock – and perhaps even more important, one of the nicest people you could ever talk to.