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Kentucky Headhunters set for Helena festival

The Kentucky Headhunters will be headlining the third annual Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival in Helena.

The two-day event will take place on May 10 and 11 and feature such notable performers as Wanda Jackson, Sonny Burgess & the Lengendary Pacers, Sleepy LaBeef, Ace Cannon and Ben “Cooter” Jones. The event begins at 3 p.m. on May 10 and 11 a.m. on May 11 with the Kentucky Headhunters closing the festival on Saturday, May 11.

“We started this thing two years ago, and I think it will only get bigger and bigger as the years go by. I am really looking forward to this year’s festival and our lineup,” Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival organizer Bubba Sullivan said.

As for the Kentucky Hueadhunters playing Arkansas, the group has been here many times, and it feels like home to them.

“It is always great to play in Arkansas. We’ve played there a lot of times. It’s always fun,” lead vocalist Doug Phelps said in a recent phone interview.

In 1989, the Kentucky Headhunters hit the country music scene in a big way. Their debut album, “Pickin’ on Nashville,” showcased the group delivering their own brand of country music, which is a mixture of honky-tonk, Blues and Southern rock.

“Natuarlly, we like a lot of the older country music, but we are all heavily influenced by groups like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones,” Phelps noted. “Later, we started digging deeper and got into the music of people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Muddy Waters. So, it’s a wide range of influences that make up the sound of the Kentucky Headhunters.”

“Pickin’ on Nashville” was a huge success. The album won a Grammy award plus it was named Album of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1990. The project’s first single was a hard driving version of the Bill Monroe classic “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine.”

“Our initial success was really something,” Phelps said. “We were definitely different, but that is what Mercury Records wanted. Our debut album did not have that commercial sheen, but it was commercial.”

From “Pickin’ on Nashville” came three other hits, “Dumas Walker,” “Oh Lonesome Me” and “Rock and Roll Angel.”

The roots of the group date back to 1968. Richard Young and his brother, Fred Young, joined their cousins Greg Martin and Anthony Kenney to form Itchy Brother. The group garnered a decent amount of regional success. In 1980, they were signed to Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records. Soon after, Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham died. Itchy Brother never completed the album.

Two years later, Itchy Brother disbanded. Richard Young focused on songwriting while Fred joined Sylvia’s band. Martin became the guitarist for Ronnie McDowell and Kenney dropped out of music.

As time passed, the three remaining members of Itchy Brother were joined by Arkansans Doug Phelps and his brother, Ricky Lee. They named themselves the Kentucky Headhunters and started woodshedding their talents via a 90-minute radio show, “Chitlin’ Time,” on WLOC in Munfordville, Kentucky.

The group borrowed $4,500 and recorded a demo tape. Their raw sound was considered abrassive by most record companies. Nonetheless, Mercury Records signed them in 1989.

After “Pickin’ on Nashville,” the Kentucky Headhunters released “Electric Barnyard.” They were named Vocal Group of the Year by the CMA in 1990 and 1991.

With the exception of Ricky Lee Phelps, today’s lineup of the group consists of the other four original members. Their current album, “Dixie Lullabies,” was recently released on Red Dirt Music Records.

Beebe writer Charles Haymes is a member of the Country Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association. Email him at charleshaymes@gmail.com.

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