Two Generations of Rock: The Kentucky HeadHunters and Black Stone Cherry

Family Practice
Two Generations of Rock: The Kentucky HeadHunters and Black Stone Cherry
Family portrait at The Practice House; the Kentucky Headhunters and Black Stone Cherry–(from left) Jon Lawhon, Greg Martin, Ben Wells, John Fred Young, Chris Robertson, Fred Young, Richard Young, and Doug Phelps.

Whether you’re talking music or family, in the rolling hills of Kentucky, roots grow deep and strong. The Kentucky HeadHunters and Black Stone Cherry were carved from the same stock, and are linked as true rarities – family bands that stay together. ν Key in the existence of each band is a 700-acre farm in central Kentucky, where, in the late ’60s, brothers Richard and Fred Young, along with their cousin, Greg Martin and family friend Doug Phelps, formed a band that would evolve to become The Kentucky HeadHunters, whose Grammy-winning sound was once famously described by Lee Roy Parnell as “heavy metal bluegrass.”

In 2001, when Richard’s son, John, wanted to start a band with friends Chris Robertson, Ben Wells, and Jon Lawhon, a house on the farm that had long served as the HeadHunters’ practice space began to play host to a second generation of musicians – Black Stone Cherry. Rock stars in the best old-school sort of way, on the farm and in the presence of their elders, they revert to being apprentices in the family’s musical mojo. The two bands recently gathered on the porch of what is now referred to by all as The Practice House to discuss guitars, family, friends, and rock-and-roll music.

Practice House, which has been in the Young family for nearly 100 years.

As one walks the path leading to the house, nothing stands out; it’s a nondescript late-19th-century wooden structure. Stepping inside, though, is akin to a trip back in time – posters, album covers, handbills, and pop paraphernalia spanning four decades plaster its walls, strategically placed to keep winter winds from blowing through the slats.

Lawhon, bassist for Black Stone Cherry, recalls how when the band rehearsed, the guys felt the presence of the iconic musicians whose images appear on the walls. “We’d stare into their faces and try to be as cool – and as good – as they were,” he said. “Before long, it began to feel as if they were watching, guiding us, like silent producers, quietly influencing from their dusty places on those walls.”

“I guess the word ‘life’ comes to mind when I think of the The Practice House,” said Martin. “Because life happens in that house.”

On this particular day, a steady stream of vintage guitars and basses were casually passed from hand to hand, while old tunes were dusted off and cast into the cosmos, in a celebration of family and friends. Martin sat in the corner, picking his ’58 Gibson Les Paul Standard. His dream, growing up, was to own a sunburst Les Paul. He’d seen the Lovin’ Spoonful at the Memorial Auditorium in Louisville, in the fall of ’66, and John Sebastian was playing a sunburst Les Paul (featured in the February ’12 issue of VG). Martin immediately fell in love with that guitar, though, financially, it was out of reach.

1) Martin’s primary stage instrument is this Gibson Custom Shop prototype of a planned reissue of his ’58 Les Paul Standard. 2) After playing this ’61 Gibson ES-335, longtime Eric Clapton guitar tech Lee Dickson called it “The finest semi-hollow Gibson I ever played.” It’s a weighty statement when one considers he has played Clapton’s “Cream” 335 and countless other prime examples. 3) One the first Gretsch Sparkle Jets – early ’55 with DeArmond single-coils. The top has nary a scratch.

Then, one night while the HeadHunters were touring with Hank Williams, Jr. in the early ’90s, “Bocephus” presented Martin with a ’58. And though its faded top is plain, it bears an authentic patina much like the weathered exterior of The Practice House. In 1993, finish guru Tom Murphy approached Gibson about copying the guitar. Nothing came of it until a few years ago, when vintage dealer Dave Rogers approached the Gibson Custom Shop about building a copy for a limited run. Through the efforts of Rogers, Murphy, and Pat Foley and the Gibson Custom Shop, a Greg Martin signature ’58 became a reality.Though more than two dozen vintage Gibsons graced the front porch and yard during VG’s visit, also well-represented were Leo Fender’s early creations; Richard Young’s ’52 Telecaster was given a workout by Robertson, who serves as Black Stone Cherry’s singer/co-lead guitarist. Robertson and John Young founded Black Stone Cherry in the house more than 10 years ago. While Robertson hammered out an Allman Brothers tune on the Tele, John Young said, “The Practice House is the reason why we became a tight band. We rehearsed there every day after school and on weekends. It’s our rock-and-roll fort in the woods.”

The Tele was modified in the early ’90s, while the HeadHunters were on tour with Danny Gatton. During sound check for a concert in Brownsville, Texas, Gatton told Richard Young, “It sounds great, but if you’ll leave it with me while you go take a shower, it’ll be the Devil’s weapon when you get back!”

To this day, Young doesn’t know exactly what Gatton did to the guitar, and now can’t believe how upset he was with Gatton at the time because part of the modification involved bending the pickup-selector switch as he had done to his own guitars. Now, though, he guards that bent toggle with his life!

4) This ’58 Fender Precision Bass is Doug Phelps’ main stage instrument. It was refinished 30 years ago. 5) Doug Phelps‘ uncle gave him this ’66 Fender Jazz Bass when Phelps was 10 years old. 6) Richard Young’s primary stage instrument, this ’52 Fender Telecaster dubbed “Danny” was modified by the late Danny Gatton.

As Fred Young and Doug Phelps began to fill the room with the impossible-to-resist backbeat of the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out,” Phelps picked on the ’66 Fender Jazz Bass given to him by an uncle. Phelps’ first bass, he was just 10 years old at the time, and he still uses it to this day.

The instruments at The Practice House represent an overwhelming sense of history and family, and nothing symbolizes that more profoundly than what Fred Young calls hiss “Heavy metal Levon Helm” drum kit. Inspired by The Band’s Helm, who was the first drummer Fred saw play wooden-hoop drums, he has used it for 25 years. His search for a bass drum similar to Helm’s led to the Metcalfe County High School band room. After scoring the drum, he built the kit around it, using parts from antique and junk stores. While the kit awaited its turn in photo shoot, Young hammered away on a green metallic-sparkle Ludwig kit belonging to his nephew, John, and emblazoned with the Black Stone Cherry logo.

While Lawhon thumbed a mid-’60s Vox bass in time with the jam, John remembered how his dad brought many cool vintage amps and guitars into the family home. Instruments routinely get passed around, literally and figuratively; Richard Young once found a ’58 Martin 00-17 which he flipped to Lawhon for no profit. Fred Young is the quiet one, but when he does speak, his words carry immense weight. “We need each other to make this all happen” he said. “We have been blessed by being a family-and-friends group.”

7) This guitar was custom-built using 100-year-old pine cut by Richard Young’s grandfather. It’s light and very resonant. 8) Ben Wells used this late-model Zemaitis in Black Stone Cherry’s first two videos. 9) Ben Wells ’53 Gibson ES-125 has very few dings or dents in its unchecked finish.

“Our family history and friendship is the foundation for our music,” adds Martin. “It comes through in the notes and the groove. Sure, there are better players out there. But when we play together, our story comes through, and we create a big sound.” Ben Wells, B.S.C.’s kinetic guitarist, echoes the sentiment. “I’ve always said that if we had been from a big city with an actual music scene, we wouldn’t sound the way we do. Because we grew up in a rural area, we had no scene to be a part of! Our love for the South and small towns had a great impact on the honesty and vibe of our lyrics and music.”

Greg Martin, Fred Young, and Chris Robertson in the Practice House

The support structure provided by family and friends also spawned the Barnyard Mafia, a local group who served as the HeadHunters’ road crew in the ’90s. “Seeing as how the band was formed on Richard and Fred’s farm and we were all farm boys, ‘Barnyard Mafia’ seemed an appropriate title,” explains Phelps. “Plus, our crew were all longtime friends who were very loyal, so it had that ‘family looking out for each other’ feel on the road.”

As the bass-and-drums backbeat evolves into a jam, Richard Young tells Robertson about how “…back in ’78, when Swan Song Records (Led Zeppelin’s label) came calling.” Young relates how the band was set to audition in Louisville when a club owner called and told them they couldn’t play the gig unless all four guys had union cards. Dues were $600, and no one had money. So Richard and Fred’s grandmother, Effie, loaned the money to them… with strings attached.

To repay it, she had them move two tons of corn from one silo to another. It just so happened that a local newspaper reporter drove by and saw them, shirtless and with hair down to their waists, shoveling corn in 100-degree heat. The picture ran in the paper with a caption, “These young guys really want to make it to the big time!” Robertson smiles knowingly; the members of his band are equally dedicated to each other. “Black Stone Cherry is the last of a dying breed – a true band of brothers!” he said, proudly.

10) This ’67 Vox Skybolt IV has low-impedance pickups that help it sound amazingly like an upright. 11) Richard Young bought this ’53 Martin 00-17 while the Headhunters were on tour. Jon Lawhon was drawn to it, and eventually bought it from Young. 12) Built by Chris Robertson’s grandfather, this guitar has rosewood back and sides and a spruce top.

Both bands compose communally. Songwriting credits are shared, which Phelps said “…makes for a healthier situation.” Iconic HeadHunter tunes such as “Dumas Walker” were written at rehearsal by all four members. “Someone comes up with a riff, and we jump on it like a bunch of buzzards!” laughed Fred Young. “The next thing you know, we got a song. Those are the most fun because they come to life right then and there.”

Grammy and Country Music Association awards are proof-positive the ethic makes sense. The HeadHunters newest album, Dixie Lullabies, has the younger guys just as excited as the older guys. The first new release by the band in seven years, it was also the first recorded at The Practice House – its vibe is palpable in the music.

“It would be easy to rest on laurels at this point in our lives,” noted Martin. “But we’re ready to explore new musical territory and take some risks. If you quit creating and growing, you’re ready for the boneyard.”

Black Stone Cherry has a large following in Europe, where the band seemingly can’t gig enough to sate audiences. But they’re mystified as to why that acceptance hasn’t translated in the States, even as their latest single “Blame It On The Boom Boom” is getting significant airplay. Much like the HeadHunters experienced in ’91 with their breakthrough, Pickin’ on Nashville, the band hopes to make the leap with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. But, will selling out concert venues mean compromising their family values? Not a chance.

Fred Young’s drum kit; its wooden-rimmed hoop drums were cast-offs from the Metcalfe County High School marching band – the Ludwig snare drum is from the ’30s. The head of the kick drum on the right was painted in a vintage W.P.A.-themed vignette by a local artist who died before he could finish. In his honor, Young left it as is.

“We’ve been pretty true to our guns,” said Wells. “We don’t want to sound like every other band out there, and I don’t believe we ever will. Our mindset is just so different because our influences range from blues, gospel, and country to folk and rock. We’ve always worked to keep our integrity and be successful at the same time.”

And while success may hinge on songwriting, musicianship and sheer luck, intangibles contribute greatly. Both bands realize how lucky they are to have their support systems.

“For my wife, being married to a guy who has acted like a 16-year-old all his life has been quite a chore, I’m sure!” said Richard Young, with a self-deprecating chuckle. Having The Practice House as a refuge helps, as well. “I know when I walk in, I’m somewhere I belong,” said Fred Young. And for the second-generation band, lessons were gleaned while hanging around the house at an early age, watching their fathers and uncles go about the business of rock and roll.

13) Chris Robertson found this David Grissom model on a tour of PRS, where it sat in the company’s R&D lab. Now, it’s one of his go-to stage guitars. 14) This ’64 Gibson Hummingbird is John Fred Young’s primary acoustic.

“I’d go on the road with the HeadHunters during the summer, and I was fortunate to see how things worked,” recalled John Young, and the hard lessons have benefitted Black Stone Cherry.
With guidance from the HeadHunters, and access to their vintage instruments, the boys from B.S.C. stand a chance of attaining the longevity and success the HeadHunters have enjoyed over the past 30 years.

For more than four decades, the “good old boys from Edmonton” have known that an afternoon spent swapping guitars and tales from the road isn’t a bad way to pass the time. And ever more, their young protégés are taking that lesson to heart. And on this day, as late afternoon shadows meld to twilight, guitar cases close and amplifiers are switched off, a more-somber mood takes over the room; maybe because days like this have lately been few and far between for the two bands – one in its halcyon days, the other starting the climb.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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