The Kentucky Headhunters' 'Pickin' On Nashville' Turns 25, Exclusive Interview

Headhunters, 2014.
Ash Newell


Friday (Oct. 17) marks the quarter-century anniversary of one of country music's most historic and unlikely success stories. 

The Kentucky Headhunters had been making music in one incarnation or another for close to two decades before their iconic Pickin' On Nashville was released. Some of the band members had previously played in a band that had signed to Capricorn Records at the height of the 1970's southern rock movement and later nearly signed onto Led Zeppelin's Swan Song Records, before the death of John Bonham thwarted those plans. Years later in the late '80s, the band was developing a following in southern Kentucky, now as the Headhunters. 

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They looked and sounded like no other at the time and the building buzz inspired Mercury Records' chief Harold Shedd to roll the dice and take a chance. Twenty five years later, it's easy to say it paid off. Perfecting the blend of rock, blues, and country, the Kentucky Headhunters' debut Pickin' On Nashville hit with a bang. 

The 615 ventured to southern Kentucky for an exclusive chat with the group to reminisce over the 1989 album that puzzled Music Row and entertained a generation of country fans. What was the appeal of the group and its double-platinum selling album? 

Singer and guitarist Richard Young told Billboard "The reason the Headhunters worked is that Nashville had tamed down the radio audience to hear one particular sound. What they weren't aware of is because rock and roll had changed from the hair metal thing, it has decimated a lot of the rural-valued listeners, and some of them had gone over to CMT. .... We didn't sound, look or act like anybody else. We were writing rock and roll and southern rock songs with southern sensibilities. A lot of people saw the video, and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

In an era of artists like George Strait and Clint Black, who didn't have a wrinkle in their Wranglers, the Headhunters perplexed Nashville with their look, their sound, and their approach to the recording process, which they owed to a good friend. "Jonathan D.W. Lyle of Richmond, Va. was a big Blues fan who was in the banking business, and he gave us $4,500 dollars, and we went down to Sound Shop Studios, and made the record in three days," recalled Phelps. The amount and the time spent on the record was astronomically less than other acts in Nashville.

The first single from the album was an unlikely one for country radio – a rocked up version of the Bill Monroe classic "Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine." The song turned heads and ears immediately, despite some detractors over the blending styles, it landed on the Country Singles chart with help from massive radio and TV support, peaking at No. 25. 

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Upon its release, Pickin' On Nashville began selling out at retail immediately. Bassist Doug Phelps said there was initially a reason for that. "Mercury printed 15,000 copies, hoping they would sell 30,000. It went Gold and Platinum faster than any new band. I think the Tractors later broke the record, but it was still an exciting time for all of us."

Pickin' On Nashville featured four singles in all, with the biggest being their cover of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me," which peaked at No. 8 in 1990. But, the success story of the Kentucky Headhunters goes far beyond chart numbers. In one case, recalls drummer Fred Young, they even saved a life.

"It was out in Oklahoma, and the doctors had given up on this man. He was going to die. His family asked if I would come in and say hello to him. So, I walk in and leaned over and told him who I was, and he came out of the coma. That was something else," he said.

All these years later, the influence of Pickin' On Nashville continues to show up, says Young. "My kid's band, Black Stone Cherry, had a song on their last album called ‘Stay.' Florida Georgia Line loved the song, and they wound up cutting it. It was number one, and I went to the number one party. We get down there, and this kid -- Joey Moi -- the producer, who was involved in writing the song, he came up to me. I recognized his face, but he still looked like a little kid, and he said 'Mr. Young, when you guys played in Canada, and I talked my dad into letting me skip school and be a roadie on the sound crew that day so I could meet you that day. We took him on the bus, signed some stuff, and gave him a cap, and he said 'That did it. I had to be in music after that.'"

The success story of the double-platinum selling album culminated in 1990 with the Pickin' On Nashville being named as the CMA Album of the Year -- and also helped the group take home the Vocal Group of the Year trophy. Young looks back on that night with awe and gratitude, reflecting "That was a moment in our lives. We had never won anything, so to realize that all those years of hard work and sacrifice was an awesome feeling. That moment was as much about our families and our fans, all those people who had stuck with us."