Originally published at MoonRunners
Greg Martin has spent his entire career as a professional musician chasing down the roots. As lead guitarist and founding member of the Kentucky Headhunters, he has fully explored the links between country, blues, and rock and roll, creating a Southern-fried sound that doesn't quite fit in anywhere. Yet for a period of time in the early '90s, Martin's band was the talk of Music City. He calls it "luck," but as anyone who has heard a Headhunters album or seen them in concert knows, the real word is "talent."
I recently talked with Martin about the Headhunters, his various side projects, his guitar collection, how to get the most out of your stereo, and much more. You can read the complete interview below and please go see the Headhunters when they come through your town or pick up their latest record. You won't be disappointed.
AS: Who would the Kentucky Headhunters rather write a fight song for: the Louisville Cardinals or the Kentucky Wildcats?
GM: (laughs). Well, I did grow up in Louisville, Kentucky so I have a special love for that city. That's a tough question, man. And I'll be honest with you. I think the Headhunters would almost write one for Louisville, but check this out. Back in 1997, we did a song called "She's My Kentucky Wildcat." So, politically, I'm gettin' out of this pretty good, right? (laughs)
AS: What are you up to these days?
GM: Back in November of last year we released a brand-new CD on Red Dirt Music called Dixie Lullabies. First CD we'd done probably in three or four years. It's all original material and we recorded and produced it at the old practice house in Metcalfe County, Kentucky. We id all the basic tracking there and then we took it down to Nashville. The right part of Nashville, by the way. We took it down to the outskirts to Mr. Richie Owens who has a cool little studio called Marathon Recorders and we mixed it down there.
And we released our first single, "Great Acoustics," earlier in the year. So this spring and summer we'll be on the road promoting that. Of course, Richard's son, John Fred Young, plays in Black Stone Cherry and them boys are quite busy both in the states and overseas.
And, myself, I got a side group with Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie, a gospel-blues-rock group called The Mighty Jeremiahs. That CD was out of print for a while and it was becoming a collector's item and it's just been re-released.
And I also do a side project called Rufus Huff, which is kinda Southern rock, '70s style.
So the Headhunters stay very busy and we're very lucky that we're still workin' quite a bit.
AS: What is your approach when you go into the studio and how does that differ from when you're onstage?
GM: Well, live you're feeding off the crowd and the energy and love from the crowd. You're without a net, so to speak. You're throwing caution to the wind live. You're in the moment. In the studio, and I've always had this problem...I guess it's real life pressure because when you know that tape machine's on you're always gonna be a bit more cautious of what you do.
Of course in the studio anymore, unfortunately, it's gotten where you got Pro Tools and all these ways to fix things, so I think people are a little more relaxed in the studio now. In my opinion, we've never really pulled it off in the studio the way we do live. You really need to catch the Kentucky Headhunters live.
But I will say that the new CD Dixie Lullabies bein' done at the practice house, there was no pressure, there was a great vibe and its got a lot of spontaneity in the music and I think people will pick up on that.
So basically what I'm sayin' is in the studio you do have a safety net and you can fix things. Live, it's throw caution to the wind and hope for the best, you know? (laughs)
AS: One thing I've noticed about Kentucky Headhunters albums is you guys always have a few interesting cover songs. What is your criteria for choosing songs to cover and how do you make them your own?
GM: That is a consideration. If you're gonna do a song by someone else you really need to put your stamp on it. And, you know, we've had people, about two or three years ago, wanting us to re-record our old songs like "Dumas Walker" and "Walk Softly" and we were like, "No, we've already done that and we can't improve on what we did then except in a live situation."
But if you back to the first album, "Oh Lonesome Me," "Walk Softly on this Heart of Mine," and "Skip a Rope" bein' the covers. And if you've heard the original version of "Skip a Rope" by Henson Cargill, it was totally different. We did it like a cowpunk song, like the Who would do it they were country. "Oh Lonesome Me," if you listen to Don Gibson we definitely rockabilly-ed it up a lot. And, of course, "Walk Softly," we totally bastardized that song (laughs). We made it into psychobilly rock or somethin'. But I just think if you're gonna do somebody else's song, you gotta do it your own way.
The second album, as you know, we did "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line"....
AS: "The Ballad of Davy Crockett"
GM: (laughs) Yes. I'd forgotten about that one. That was Fred Young's idea and we really raised a ruckus in Nashville with that one. We'd sold about two million copies of the first album and everybody was pitchin' songs right and left, you know? "We wanna get a song on the new Headhunters album." But we didn't do that, man. We did mostly our own songs, but then we covered "Only Daddy," "Spirit in the Sky," "Love Bug Crawl," an old rockabilly song, and we covered "Davy Crockett." And when "Davy Crockett" came out as the single, it made the publishers and a lot of the writers really mad down there.
AS: Who are some of your biggest influences as a guitar player?
GM: Oh my....Well, Jimi Hendrix, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, James Burton, Albert Lee, Eric Clapton with Cream, Jimmy Page, the late great Ronnie Montrose. Oh my lord...there's so many, man! BB King, Freddie King, Albert King, Jeff Beck, of course. There's just so many people, man. And the great session players like Hank Garland. He was a big influence. As I listen now to music and I listen to some of these guys who played on the sessions in Nashville, like Hank Garland and Grady Martin and people like that, I have a new love of the stuff.
AS: You named a really diverse group of people and I think that really shows through in your music, where it's not quite rock, not quite country, it's just good music. Do you think more artists these days need to get back to just making good music and let other people decide where it fits in or even if it fits in at all?
GM: You're right. They wanna put everything in a category now and that's been happening for a while. I remember seein' an interview with Jimi Hendrix and bless his heart. He was a genius and a very spiritual man and he was just goin' off on people puttin' music into categories and I think that that good music is good music.
Why can't you play "Freight Train" by Chet Atkins, "Hoochie Coochie Man" by Muddy Waters, then go on into "Train Kept a-Rollin'" by the Burnette Trio, then let's go ahead and play Bent Fabric's version of "Alley Cat"? It's all good music, man. And Johnny Cash, Waylon, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, all these guys. They had soul just as much as Wilson Pickett, James Brown, or Howlin' Wolf. It's all music from the heart and we all have different language and ways to present it, but it's all about whether it's from the heart or are you fakin' it? There's a lot of fakes comin' out, as you know. You know the thing, "is it butter or is it Parkay?" There's a lot of Parkay out there these days.
AS: I think everybody's really a product of what they listen to. The Kentucky Headhunters couldn't have been anything else.
GM: Absolutely. You mentioned influences. I got a lot of influences. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were big influences and I can't deny that. But you are a product of what you listen to, man. The old saying is "you are what you eat." It's almost like a computer. What you put in eventually you're gonna spit out and everybody is influenced by different kinds of music.
I can't speak for everybody but I know collectively we would cite the Beatles and the Stones as big influences and we also love Chuck Berry, who was known as an R&B-rock-n-roller but he had a lot of country music in him. And all the real country.Waylon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie, Bobby Bare. It's heavy stuff, just as heavy as Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. I think people should have a good diet of that kind of music.
AS: The Headhunters started playing together in the '60s, right?
GM: Yes. Around 1967, Richard Young and Fred Young got together with there cousin Anthony Kenney on bass and that band was called the Truce.
And I met Richard in the fall of '68. He was goin' to Metcalfe County Grade School and I was a freshman at the high school. My cousin Larry Sullivan, who's the nephew of Lonzo and Oscar, introduced me to Richard Young because he wanted to get us together for a talent show. I had an old Gretsch Silver Jet from the '50s, which is a really cool rockabilly guitar. So I go down there at lunch hour and meet him in the school cafeteria and we jam on "Hey Jude," "Sunshine of Your Love," "Born to Be Wild," "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida" and we were like "yeah, we can do this."
That was in 1968. We started a little band about then, changed the name from the Truce to Aftermath, which was named after a Rolling Stones album. We played off and on for many years, then we had a group called Itchy Brother in the '70s which was more of a heavy blues-rock band.
Then we all did different things in the '80s. I played with Ronnie McDowell for a while. Fred Phelps played with Ronnie. Richard worked with Acuff-Rose Publishing Company. But in 1986, we just got sick of washin' other people dishes so to speak and we wanted to put a little band together. By 1989, we signed the deal with Mercury and the first album just went through the roof. We were very lucky.
AS: Do you think a band like the Headhunters could have that level of success today?
GM: I would hope so, but the way the consultants and programmers are doin' these days, it would be hard.
You know, the late '80s and early '90s, there was a little window of time where I think the music was fed by the college scene. There were groups like the Beat Farmers, the Long Ryders, Steve Earle's first album, Dwight Yoakam kinda sprang out of there, the Del-Lords. There was a brief time where country music opened the doors and let a few people in who wouldn't normally get in. We had Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, New Grass Revival, Forster and Lloyd, people like that. Once in a while Nashville lets their guard down a little bit and we kinda came in on the wave of that, I believe.
AS: What is your favorite Headhunters album?
GM: There's a couple. We did an album around 2003 called Soul.
It was recorded for Arium Records and I think it sold 2,000 copies maybe. And I love that album because we just sort of put it together in a week or two and recorded it. It's got a lot of soul music on it, it's got blues on it, rockabilly, just a lot of elements of American music that we grew up with. Now for the people readin' this interview and wonderin' where you can get a copy, you can probably go to half.com
and get it for about a dollar (laughs). It just never sold that many copies.
My second favorite album is That'll Work. It's Johnnie Johnson and the Kentucky Headhunters. It came out in 1993 and it featured Johnnie Johnson, who played piano for Chuck Berry. We did a duet album with him.
And I think Dixie Lullabies, the new one, is a good album with some good songwriting. And another good album is Songs From the Grass String Ranch. I guess I gave you four albums (laughs).
AS: How did the album with Johnnie Johnson come about?
GM: Oddly enough, we were fans of the Chuck Berry sides that came out on Chess that Johnnie had played on and around 1992 we were goin' to the Grammy Awards in New York and goin' up there we had this new album Johnnie Johnson had recorded with NRBQ members and Steve Ferguson, a great guitar player from Louisville and the original guitarist for NRBQ. It was called Johnnie B. Bad. And we were listenin' to the album on the way up.
And, before the Grammy's, we were at a ballroom for a little dinner and cocktail thing and we ran into Johnnie and just freaked out. All around us are all these other stars and we just gravitated towards Johnnie. And our manager and his manager looked at each other and they're like, "Well, these guys like each other. Maybe we should entertain the idea of doin' somethin' together. "
Lo and behold, we talked about it. The band went through some changes in 1992, but by the fall Johnnie came down to the farm, to the old practice house and hung out with us. We wrote some songs and went in the studio. It's a fate thing, I like to think.
AS: What's your approach to songwriting?
GM: There's two or three ways a Headhunters song happens. Richard and Doug are very prolific writers. They get up in the morning and write a song. I listen to a lot of music and I can sit down with a guitar and write but it's something....like "Dumas Walker," for instance. We wrote it at the practice house. It's a true story about two places. It's about a place in Greensburg, Kentucy that served slaw burgers, fries and a bottle of Ski and another place we used to go to buy firecrackers called Dumas Walker's.
I remember doin' a radio interview in Nashville back around 1990 and Garth Brooks was in the room with us. You know, Garth, like him or not, he's a very smart fella. He's watchin' us and he looks over at me and asks, "Is Dumas Walker real?" I say, "yeah" abnd he goes, "I thought so."
All the songs are about things we know of, that we grew up with. They're from the heart.
AS: Tell me about your radio show.
GM: Actually, back in 1986 I had a little blues show in Munfordville, Kentucy called Blue Mondays on WLOC and we also started a live show with the Headhunters playin' live on the air called The Chitlin' Show on the same station.
I've always loved radio and the great history, you know? It used to be when I was a kid you'd get your AM radio out and pick up stations out of New Orleans, Chicago, Fort Wayne, New York. It was kinda like an adventure every night because the way AM radio signals work, you're gonna pick up somethin' different every night. And I was always intrigued by the Mexican stations that would drift in, as well.
So I've always loved radio and in 1986 I had a desire to do a blues radio show and I did it. Then in the late '80s, as you know, the Headhunters got real busy and I had to quit doin' the radio thing. Then in 1997, I put together The Lowdown Hoedown at WBLC in Camelsville. Then in 2001, I moved it down to Bowling Green on a classic rock station called WBNS and I've been there ten years.
I like to say that 90% of what I do is stone blues, but there's no set rule. If I wanna play a Chet Atkins song or Waylon....I played Willie Nelson Monday night right alongside Howlin' Wolf. I like to be able to stretch the perimeters a little bit.
This coming Monday night, I have an interesting show lined up. Vince Gill is gonna call in at 7:15 and we're gonna talk about the blues, about him hangin' out with Clapton, and focus more on him as a guitar player. Then after 8, I have a band called Kentucky Thunder who are gonna come on and talk about their new CD. But then again, I've had people like Peter Frampton, Billy Gibbons, Glenn Hughes from Deep Purple. I just like to say if it's got soul I'll try to play it a little bit.
AS: What is the line between country and blues? For example, is there any real difference between Son House and Jimmie Rodgers other than skin color?
GM: Well, in today's vernacular it would be the twang. But you're right, man. Jimmie Rodgers was a blues man and a lot of people don't realize that Gene Autry did blues as well before he became a singin' cowboy. He was a blues singer, a lot like Jimmie Rodgers.
Funny thing is, the black community would listen to the Grand Ole Opry right alongside the white folks and the white folks loved the blues on WLAC. It was sort of a cross-pollination thing. Both Jimmie Rodgers and Son House had soul, but it was just the presentation. Son House was very raw, where Jimmie Rodgers had the "Blue Yodel" with a kind of country rhythm behind him.
AS: And rockabilly and Southern rock is where the two styles really came together. Do you see the Headhunters fitting in there more so than country music?
GM: Our roots really would fit in with the Southern rock thing and when you think about Southern rock, I guess the Allman Brothers are sort of the daddy's of that. We were very much influenced by those guys, as a lot of folks were.
I was talking to my stepson about Lynyrd Skynyrd and what a great band they are. They were still a great band with Steve Gaines and were getting ready to morph into something very, very unique. They were doing even more country. As you know, Ronnie Van Zant was a very big Merle Haggard fan.
But Southern rock was a mix of blues, a lot of country, and rock and roll. And the best rock and roll has a lot of blues and country in it. That's where you take it back to the Earth.
AS: Speaking of Skynyrd, I've heard that you own a guitar that was once owned by Gary Rossington. Is that true?
GM: It belonged to Ed King, actually. It's a '58 Les Paul that Ed King owned back in the '80s, then Hank Jr. owned it for a while. Then Hank Jr. gave it to me back in 1991 and I still have it. I love it. It's a beautiful guitar.
AS: I also heard that you're getting ready to unveil a new slide.
GM: There's a couple of things goin' on. The Rocky Mountain Slide Company is gettin' ready to release a signature slide, which is basically a clone of a Coricidin bottle like Duane Allman used. He's one of my big heroes. Also, Gibson is doing a copy of a Les Paul I own and there should be about 175 signature guitars out in the next year or two.
AS: Is the slide going to be available for purchase?
GM: We'll be unveiling it next week at the Dallas Guitar Show. I'll be at the Dallas Guitar Show the 19th, 20th and 21st and they should be available there.
AS: Speaking of guitarists: Tony Iommi or Randy Rhoads?
GM: That's a big question, man. 'Cause they're so different! Funny thing is I remember when Black Sabbath first hit and I was in high school and Richard, Fred and I used to try to play "Iron Man."
Who's my favorite between those two? My God. It's apples and oranges, but I'd have to go with Randy Rhods just because he's no longer with us and he really was goin' somewhere else with his music, even though I can't say one is any better than the other.
AS: You guys were into the Beatles, the Stones, as we just mentioned, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, bands like that. How did that interact with your upbringing around country music?
GM: It's so funny, man. Growing up in this part of the country you cannot escape country or bluegrass or gospel music. My parents were very much into country music and growing up I remember them listening to country radio. And there was a time when I was growin' up that I remember watchin' a show out of Nashville. And you gotta understand, at this time I was into Cream and Jimi Hendrix, but on this particular day there was a gentleman by the name of Merle Travis on the show, a fellow Kentuckian. I was so intrigued by the way he did his thumb-pickin' on the guitar and it kinda turned my life around and gave me a real love for what you call the thumb-pickin' style of playing that Merle Travis and Chet Atkins did.
I don't know, man. I think growing up around here, even though in the '70s we fought the country thing quite a bit....People would be like "You need to go to Nashville. Don't go tryin' to sound like Led Zeppelin." (laughs) And of course we didn't wanna hear that then but I think now as we've grown older we came to appreciate this state and the heritage that we got. Bill Monroe. Keith Whitley. Loretta Lynn. All the great music. Even blues, man. Sylvester Weaver, probably the first man to record slide guitar in New York City in 1923, was born in Louisville. And John Brimm was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. He wrote "Ice Cream Man," a great blues song that Van Halen did later on.
So there's a lot of blues, bluegrass and country that comes out of this state. I think it's just in your bones around here, whether you wanna admit it or not. It took us a long time to admit that we liked country music. I'm not gonna lie to you. But I love Merle Travis. I love Chet Atkins, all the cats that got a little soul.
AS: Were your parents supportive of the music you were doing back then?
GM: Not really (laughs). They would just kinda shrug their shoulders and be like "Ok." (laughs). I never will forget in 1968 I got this Gretsch Silver Jet from my brother and then for Christmas I got a Vox Clyde McCoy wah-wah pedal, which is kinda valuable now, and a Vox fuzztone pedal. And when they heard me makin' noise with that, my dad had to be shruggin' his shoulders goin' "Oh my God," you know? (laughs)
AS: What's your favorite guitar that you own?
GM: The '58 Les Paul sunburst would be number one, my next would be a 1957 Stratocaster and then I got a 1959 Telecaster I like a lot too.
AS: What's your opinion on recent trends in music, such as iTunes, the CD gradually slipping away, and the resurgence in vinyl?
GM: It's interesting. It's almost parallel in some ways to what was goin' on in 1965. Now the emphasis is on a single again. Back in 1965 and '66 you'd go into the department store and you'd buy "California Girls" by the Beach Boys, "Day Tripper" by the Beatles, or whatever. And then, of course, the Beatles changed all of that with album rock. Then, if you were lucky, you could save up your money and buy an album.
What I'm seeing now is that the emphasis isn't on the album or CD anymore. I am kinda scared because I love CDs and I do love vinyl. I grew up with vinyl. I don't download much. I've got an iPod out in the van but I only rip music from CDs I own to put on the iPod. I'm not a big fan of the way mp3s sound.
But what I've recently done is bought a couple of 1979 receivers and got a good set of speakers and I'm enjoying vinyl and my CDs even sound better. CDs are a little sterile, but since I've rebuilt my stereo and went back to an old system, they sound pretty darn good to my ears (laughs).
AS: Good equipment is 99% of the battle.
GM: Exactly. I bought a 1979 receiver with 270 watts per side. And I got a set of Pioneer CS99 speakers and a set of JBL 4312 monitors and four speakers downstairs. Man! If you put a CD in there the bass rocks the house. I love it.
I suggest to anyone reading this, you can go to a yard sale for $50 and pick up an old Kenwood and it's gonna be so much better than what you can buy at Wal-Mart.
AS: Thanks for talking with me. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
GM: To anyone who's supported the Headhunters over the years, thank you. We appreciate it. To the folks out there who appreciate good music, whether it be Shooter and the XXX thing or going back to the roots and listening to folks like Merle Travis, Merle Haggard, George Jones. There's a lot of Parkay out there. It's time to get back to the refrigerator and get the real butter out.