By Bobby “Ten Pound Hammer” Peacock
The first album I ever owned was Pickin' on Nashville by the Kentucky Headhunters. After a long time having forgotten about them outside that album, a chance encounter with "Louisianna CoCo" on the radio in 2000 inspired me to go back and buy all of their other albums to that point. Through this, I found that they had made lots of mostly good music in that time frame. Then I kept finding new albums of theirs at Walmart, and was thrilled to find that they were still making good music. I keep up with their music to this day, and have even had some correspondence with them (they even helped me improve their Wikipedia article!). In short, if you want to know anything about a fine Southern rock band that most people only know for one song, then I'm your man. By far the hardest part was narrowing this list down to ten!
10. Lonely Nights
One of the true tests of a rock group is their ability to carry a ballad. And the Headhunters prove more than able on this one. Lyrics like "Lord have mercy on this broken heart / And forgive her for tearing me apart" may seem direct on paper, but Doug Phelps sings them with absolute conviction. And the instrumentation -- including not only the powerful rhythm section provided by Fred Young and Anthony Kenney, but also the horns and Hammond organ prominent on the corresponding album -- just enhance the mood even more.
9. My Daddy Was a Milkman
I think I'm partial to this song because it was the endcap to Pickin' on Nashville and always gave me that sense of finality. But it's also a damn fine song in its own right. A mostly straightforward guitar groove underlines a story you've probably heard before -- the husband is off to war, so the wife cheats on him with the milkman. But then two more details twist the story even further: the husband stayed in Vietnam with a woman he dated there, while the narrator, the sole heir to his dad's milk company, is now fabulously wealthy. It's a testament to their unconventional and humorous storytelling.
I've been a longtime fan of Roger Miller, and apparently so have they. Their take keeps all of the goofy charm of his tales of underage drinking -- even the scatting! -- and adds to it their distinct country-rock energy. They also have the advantage of actually being old enough to convey the story credibly, but still feisty enough to keep you interested and entertained. The Heads were no strangers to cover songs, and this song -- itself the centerpiece of a covers album -- is a testament to their ear for covers that are distinct and enjoyable.
7. Louisianna CoCo
As I mentioned in the intro, I heard this song once on the radio late at night and couldn't believe what I had just heard -- the Kentucky Headhunters? With a new song? I was immediately so taken by the novelty that I rushed to buy the album at Kmart, and I'm glad I did. Though unknown to me at the time, this was rhythm guitarist Richard Young's first turn on lead vocals, and he makes an exceptional first impression. His low growl and Doug's high howl combine with a maddeningly catchy guitar riff and a few unusual references (it's not often that you hear marijuana called "left-handed cigarettes") to make this far, far more than just your average "rock song about a hot girl."
6. Dry-Land Fish
As part of my "Louisianna CoCo"-driven reintroduction, I found this gem on the very same album. The only song to feature drummer Dale Gribble... I mean, Fred Young on lead vocals, it matches his goofy delivery perfectly to its laid-back, pseudo-psychedelic tales of incense, Led Zeppelin albums, and magic mushrooms. No, not those kind. The kind sung about in this song are morels, a perfectly edible strain and a childhood favorite. And this song is every bit as rootsy and tasty as the mushroom in question.
Yet another off-kilter story. You'd think it'd end when he reveals that Diane's dumped him for another man, but instead, the story continues with the narrator being robbed (which fails because Diane took everything he had), and goes even further with him contemplating suicide in his living room. The dark, moody groove, especially the ringing end chords and even a gong, are just further proof of their ability to find something different and run with it. This is probably one of their furthest ventures away from country-rock, but they more than have the chops to pull it off.
4. Everyday People
The opening track on the aforementioned Soul finds the Headhunters with their only featured vocalist to date (outside two full-on collab albums with Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson); namely, Louisville-based R&B singer Robbie Bartlett. Open-ended but timely observations like "The workin' man just can't win / No one's on his side" are sung by Doug with unbridled passion and sincerity, and Bartlett matches her own soulful, gritty tone flawlessly to the content. Some fine drumming and a layer of Hammond organ certainly don't hurt in elevating this fine working-man anthem.
3. Dumas Walker
Even if you don't know who the eponymous Dumas Walker was (for the record, a marbles champion who owned a convenience store that the Headhunters frequented in their youth), it's that distinct detail that adds to the often-used country trope of just having a good time with your friends. And it's probably for that reason that this one is such a cornerstone of '90s country playlists in spite of its low chart peak -- it's just a damn good country party song with an infectious energy that still holds up 30+ years later. Also, I've actually had Ski (a local brand of citrus-flavored pop), and just like the Headhunters themselves, it's a local favorite that I want more to discover.
2. Crazy Jim
Another in the ever-increasing number of songs sung by Richard, this one tells of an eccentric man who was not loved by the community, but still "was from a land where they never learned to hate". One of his eccentricities was handing out rocks to people as a reminder of being rich in spirit, not in money. The portrayal of this unusual yet angelic character is touching enough on its own, but when you realize that "Crazy Jim" was Richard and Fred Young's own father, who died shortly before the album's release, that's when the absolute emotion in Richard's grainy voice really hits you.
1. Great Acoustics
I always cap these lists off with odd picks, don't I? But there's just something about this song that seems to hit all of the band's strengths at once. A gentle memorable melody with a soaring chorus. Martin's impeccably sharp, bluesy guitar tone. The warmer, yet no less gritty soft end of Doug's vocal range. Subtle flourishes of mandolin and Hammond organ that slot seamlessly into the punchy Southern rock surroundings. But best of all is the revelation that the narrator's woman is cheating on him with another woman, and it's treated no differently than if it were just another man. It's just that one little extra touch that turns this song from merely great to outstanding, and makes this the kind of song that I would love to see find a wider audience.
Honorable mentions: Dixie Lullaby, Jukebox Full of Blues, Big Mexican Dinner, Skip a Rope, Jessico, Take These Chains from My Heart, Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line... I could go on