Album review: Kentucky Headhunters on the mark again

Kentucky Headhunters

Despite the shrunken head motif on its cover, “On Safari” conjures a gator hunt in a swamp. The Kentucky Headhunters always made themselves at home in a variety of places, but this hard-rollicking blast of an album, their 11th, finds them firmly entrenched in a greasy Southern rock shack in the backwater.

“Beaver Creek Mansion” right off describes it, Greg Martin’s slippery slide guitar snaking around singer/bassist Doug Phelps as he spells out K.E.N.T.U.C.K.Y. like a call to arms.

At the end of the 1980s, the Headhunters were touted as the next big thing in country music, just about the time country music went the way of crappy generic rock. These men stayed the course. Right now, with a full-on resurgence of this kind of thing, “Safari” ought to garner them acclaim at least one more time.

“Deep South Blues Again” continues the charge, singer/guitarist Richard Young pushing them deeper yet into the mire. Young sings in a scratchy, pained voice like the late, great Eddie Hinton used as he sang his soul. If “Crazy Jim” isn’t a tribute to Hinton, I’ll be damned. “Jim,” quite the interesting character, was from “A land where they never learned to hate.” Perfect timing, that one.

All throughout, Martin proves himself a guitarist who ought to be a household name in this realm. His facility, taste, and sting are all absolutely exquisite. The songs are all band collaborations, very unique, but also steeped in inspiration. Those who’ve been around a while might think of Paul Rodgers and Bad Company when listening to Phelps sing the strapping “I Am the Hunter,” catchy as hell on the one hand, but also full of gritty emotion. Rolling Stones may be banging around in “Big Time,” but Hinton also makes another spiritual appearance. And in “Jukebox Full of Blues,” the Headhunters’ close relationship with Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s longtime pianist, now gone, comes to the fore courtesy of “safari brother” Kevin McKendree sparkling on the 88’s in a duck-walkin’ beat.

Consistently excellent, this is also one of those albums that never gets old. I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t make a few year-end best-of lists. It’s on mine.

-Tom Clarke

Kentucky Headhunters
‘On Safari’
Nov. 4, 2016
Label: Plowboy/Practice House Records

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About Tom Clarke

From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 23 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos.Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage.Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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