The Kentucky Headhunters' songs capture a changing cast of players that can't decide if they want to be Hank Williams, Carl Perkins or Muddy Waters. Lucky for us, they realized that they didn't have to pick just one path to success, developing into an amalgam of Nashville rebels, rock 'n' rollers and straight-up blues players.
Formed in the mid-'80s from the ashes of classic rockers Itchy Brother, the original Kentucky Headhunters lineup consisted of lead singer Ricky Lee Phelps, guitarist Greg Martin, rhythm guitarist Richard Young, bassist Doug Phelps, and drummer Fred Young. Their 1989 debut album Pickin' on Nashville put the band on the fast train to critical and commercial success. It netted the band's only top 10 hit on the Hot Country Songs chart, a cover of country music standard "Oh, Lonesome Me." The album also won a Grammy and a pair of CMA awards.
The album and future releases presented the Kentucky Headhunters as equal parts sarcastic and sincere. A song like "My Daddy Was a Milkman" is purposefully funny, while covers like the band's treatment of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" proves that its members seriously honor their musical roots.
Over the years, lineup changes, namely Mark S. Orr's run as lead singer and Itchy Brother alum Anthony Kenney's turn as bassist, hardly slowed down the band. Despite a lack of mainstream attention, quality albums kept coming, from the covers-only project Big Boss Man to the underrated Grass String Ranch.
That hard-to-define sound grounded in different influences might've halted that early commercial momentum. Cutting a blues album just two releases after such a massive debut is a bad move if you're in it for hits and making radio programmers' lives easy. But if you're in it to play the honky tonk blues for the rest of rural America, then it's a worthy gamble to deal the hand that included these ten memorable songs.
10. "Little Queenie" (with Johnnie Johnson)
The blues album in question, 1993's That'll Work, teamed the band with blues player and Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson. This partnership reconvened a decade later for Meet Me in Bluesland, an album featuring this cut, "Stumblin'," "King Rooster," Superman Blues" and other blues-rock numbers.
The band's inability to choose a genre or decade to mirror comes through in its cover songs. In this case, a Roger Miller hit starts off sounding a little like Johnny Rivers' version of "Memphis, Tennessee."
8. "Redneck Girl"
This cross between raucous rockabilly and Brooks & Dunn-style modern country wasn't quite as far removed from the mainstream as other selections on this list. For even more rockabilly swagger, check out "Dixie Fried."
7. "Oh, Lonesome Me"
In another case of a county cover becoming a cross-genre odyssey, the band made what is best described as original writer Don Gibson meets Dire Straits.
6. "Rock & Roll Angel"
The Headhunters' various rock and country influences expanded to include the South of the Border flavor of Marty Robbins for this Pickin' On Nashville album cut.
5. "Walk Softly on this Heart of Mine"
Something is charming about a bunch of Kentucky pickers covering Bill Monroe, as heard on the very first track on Pickin' On Nashville.
4. "My Daddy Was a Milkman"
Backed by bass playing that puts most funk-rockers to shame, Phelps adds an uncouth spin to jokes about young'uns looking suspiciously like the neighborhood milkman.
3. "The Ballad of Davy Crockett"
A single off the amazingly titled Electric Barnyard album, the band pays tribute to a folk hero from Tennessee and Texas history. Promo copies of the song were mailed to radio stations along with a coonskin cap.
2. "Honky Tonk Walkin'"
Another great collision of worlds takes boogie-woogie southern rock to the Ernest Tubb and Travis Tritt school of barroom anthems.
1. "Dumas Walker"
The obvious top pick among the band's original composition taught the whole country about a marbles-playing roadside tavern owner in rural Kentucky. What could've just been a regional sensation had a massive hand in those Grammy and CMA wins.