No American band has rocked harder and longer than the Kentucky Headhunters. No catalog overflows with more great roots, rock, and country songs than Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Which makes Big Boss Man
, a collection of Sony/ATV masterworks by the Grammy-, Country Music Association-, and Academy of Country Music-award winning Kentucky Headhunters, an event worth celebration.
With a street date of June 21, Big Boss Man
will please all who appreciate bands and songs with true staying power. More to the point, the twelve titles on Big Boss Man
offer a textbook lesson in how five soulful musicians--brothers Richard (guitarist) and Fred (drummer) Young, their cousins Greg Martin (guitar) and Anthony Kenney (bass/vocals), plus lead singer Doug Phelps--can find something fresh in material that's been around the block more than once.
Sometimes it takes just one simple detail, like the addition of a nonstop, slamming backbeat through the stop-time breaks of "I'm Down." Sometimes it involves a shift from major to minor key, which casts an ominous shadow over "Walkin' After Midnight" and "Take These Chains from My Heart." It can also be about revamping the honky-tonk groove, adding some saloon piano courtesy of blues/rock legend Reese Wynans, and blowing it all up into an almost comic swagger, as they do on Hank Williams's "Hey Good Lookin'."
Or it can lead to a radical, top-to-bottom rearrangement, as in their treatment of "Like a Rolling Stone"--which, against all odds, uncovers something in the song that even Bob Dylan left untouched.
The point is that the Kentucky Headhunters, who have defied categorization yet still sold more than six million albums worldwide, beat the odds once again, this time by pumping high-octane energy into songs we all know and making us connect with them once again, in brand new ways.
The idea for this project comes from Tom Long of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville and Tree Productions, who has been working closely with the band since he first heard them perform in 1976 at a county fair in Edmonton, Kentucky, next to a stockcar track. ("They were actually louder than the stockcars," Long recalls, laughing. "I was impressed.") After managing the band for a few years they eventually landed in Nashville, where hard work and keeping the faith led them to a record deal and, on their debut album Pickin' on Nashville
, their first hit single, a cover of Bill Monroe's "Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine."
Their sound, which they'd cultivated since they'd come together in 1968, was a unique blend of traditional country and Southern rock & roll. Armed with talent, bound by family ties, and driven by raw, good-ole-boy attitude, they've developed that feel through the years, to the point that no other band is better equipped to interpret the Sony/ATV repertoire.
"So I sent them a compilation of about 2,500 songs from our pop catalog, our country catalog, and the Acuff/Rose catalog, which we acquired a few years ago," Long says. "And I left it up to them to select the 15 or 16 songs they felt most excited about doing."
"I knew it would be a great project," adds Richard Young, "but I gotta tell you, when I went to pick up the boxes of CDs Tom had sent us I was a little overwhelmed. It wasn't easy for us to narrow them down, since so many of these songs affected our lives. But in the end, after we had listened to every CD in those boxes, we did come up with a final list, based on trying to present a broad spectrum of music since our audience includes fans of country, rock & roll, blues, and even a jazzer or two."
Working in the same practice house they've kept in Edmonton since the seventies, the band woodshedded on their final selections. Meanwhile, Long inked a deal for the album with CbuJ Entertainment, Nashville's premier independent record label and distribution company, to handle national distribution for Big Boss Man. "It's a great honor for us to take this on," says Stephen McCord, VP/Sales & Marketing for CbuJ. "These guys have been playing together for more than 35 years, and with that depth of experience and artistry they're going to be our number one priority for CBUJ."
With the power-chord treatment of Buck Owens's "Made in Japan," the intimate cantina treatment of the Everly Brothers's "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)," the goofball romp through Roger Miller's "Chug-a-Lug"...with every track on the album, in fact, choosing one as the first single was no easy task. Yet in the end the title cut proved perfect for representing both the point of the album and the spirit of the Headhunters.
"The first version of Big Boss Man we'd ever heard was the one that Elvis sang at his sit-down concert in '68," Richard Young says. "Everybody said that he was washed up, but then he comes back in black leather, sits down in front of these people, and brings himself back. That took huge balls, and we respected that. But every time the Headhunters get into a song we become musicologists and dig back to find out where it came from--which means that it was Elvis who turned us on to the guy who did the original version, Jimmy Reed.
"That's part of what we want to accomplish with Big Boss Man. We want people to know about the songs that affected us when we were growing up. Of course we also put our own brand on them, and we're proud of what we've done. But one thing's for sure: Whatever you say about the Kentucky Headhunters, nobody can say we didn't do some great tunes."