The late Duane Allman once said the phrase “southern rock” could be re-phrased as “rock” – his point being that all rock and roll springs from southern roots. The Kentucky Headhunters embody that notion in a big way. During their 30-year career, the Kentucky-based group has melded blues, country, and blistering guitar-rock into a simmering mix that draws deeply from tradition, while being as timeless as a Chuck Berry tune.

The Headhunters’ latest album, On Safari, assimilates all those various influences to perfection. Hewing close to the “classic rock” mold, guitarists Greg Martin and Richard Young deliver what Martin half-jokingly calls a “hillbilly version of Mick Taylor and Keith Richards,” while drummer Fred Young and bassist-singer Doug Phelps anchor the proceedings with a rock-solid rhythm foundation.

High points include the Lovin’ Spoonful-inspired “Rainbow Shine;” the slide-guitar studded “Beaver Creek Mansion;” and a raucous cover of the Alice Cooper classic, “Caught in a Dream,” that will have you pining for the early ‘70s. Martin recently took time out of the group’s busy road schedule to talk about the new album, guitar playing, and his go-to Gibsons.

Kentucky Headhunters

The bulk of On Safari was recorded in just three days. Do you prefer working that quickly?

I do like working that way, because the spontaneity is there. Actually we had started the songwriting process two or three years earlier, but then we broke off, in order to finish up the Johnnie Johnson project [Note: Meet Me in Bluesland, a collection of 2003 recordings made with Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson, was released in 2015]. What happened was, Richard and Fred’s Dad became really sick, and he passed away in April. A couple of days after the funeral, they said, “Let’s just go right into the studio.” The way we work is really archaic. We have little cassette tapes -- no fancy mp3 machines or anything – and we just listen to those tapes. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s how that song went,” and then we run it down and have it done in one or two takes. And then there were three or four songs – “Caught in a Dream,” “Beaver Creek Mansion,” “Way Down South,” “Governor’s Cup” – that we had never played at all. We knocked those out really fast though.

Did Richard’s and Fred’s father passing away affect your approach to the music?

It was certainly a way to deal with the grief. Music is a wonderful way to deal with joy and grief. I did feel like there was certain spirit surrounding the recording of this album. We were very sad, as you can imagine. Their Dad was 93 when he passed away. It was as if there was a muse around, so to speak, and I do think that gave the album a special kind of depth.

Whose idea was it to record Alice Cooper’s “Caught in a Dream”?

That was Fred’s idea. He was a huge Alice Cooper fan back in the early ‘70s, when Alice Cooper was a band. Of course Alice Cooper the man is a great guy. I remember, when I was in high school, Richard and Fred and I would loan each other albums. I would loan them NRBQ, Jimi Hendrix, Cream … and they would loan me things like the Allman Brothers and Alice Cooper. That song – along with “Eighteen” and “Ballad of Dwight Frye” -- were real standouts on the Love It To Death album. That’s such a great song -- [original Alice Cooper guitarist] Michael Bruce is a great writer. We didn’t do it exactly like the Alice Cooper group did it. We changed the format around a bit and tried to bring something of our own spark to it, hopefully.

“Rainbow Shine” is a bit reminiscent of Van Morrison.

That’s one we started working on in 2014. We got together in the practice house and did a rough sketch of it. Richard sings that one. I was a big fan of the Lovin’ Spoonful. I saw them in concert back in 1966. As a matter of fact, the first Les Paul I ever laid eyes on was the one being played by John Sebastian. He planted the seeds for my love of Les Pauls.

“Governor’s Cup” is another great song – sort of a tip of the hat to Merle Travis. It’s interesting that you used your Les Paul for a song played in that style.

That’s right. For this album I basically used my ’58 Les Paul on just about everything. I did one slide overdub for “Jukebox Full of Blues,” using a Melody Maker. What I brought to the sessions was my ’58 Les Paul, my ’64 Melody Maker, and my ES-335. For the lion’s share of the material, I just plugged in my 1958 Les Paul.

But you did use your ES-335 on some of the tracks as well?

It was in the studio. Richard used it on some of the overdubs, and I’ve been using it on some sessions for other people. I got that guitar back in the late spring. As a matter of fact, I just picked up a 1959 ES-345 about a week ago.

Let’s talk guitar-playing in general. There are lots of great solos on the new album. Do you work out the solos beforehand?

For this album they were done spontaneously. Things would just come to me out of the air. Of course that makes things kind of difficult for live performance, because now I have to look back and think, “Okay, what did I do there?” For instance, on “Rainbow Shine,” I kind of approached my part as a counterpoint to what Richard was doing. I was thinking about the Lovin’ Spoonful, thinking of how Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian would play against one another. I even went back and put a little “tenor guitar” thing on there.

Generally speaking, you’re billed as the lead guitarist and Richard is billed as the rhythm player. But is there a lot of overlap between the two?

Absolutely. Richard is a fine guitar player. He doesn’t play a lot of leads, but he did play the countermelody on “Governor’s Cup.” And that’s him playing the hook on “Rainbow Shine.” Sometimes we do “call and response” types of things, playing lead back and forth. I like to say we’re a hillbilly version of Mick Taylor and Keith Richards.

What are your main guitars for live performance?

I take my prototype CC15 [Gibson Collector’s Choice #15, “Greg Martin” 1958 Les Paul] on the road. It’s tuned to open E, for the Duane Allman-type slide stuff. And I’ve got a John Sebastian CC13 Collector's Choice #13 [Gibson Collector’s Choice #13, “Spoonful Burst” 1959 Les Paul] as a backup guitar, that I also use on tour. Actually my main guitar for touring most of this year has been a new Gibson R8 [Les Paul ’58 Reissue]. I bought it off the shelf, and it’s been my main guitar since around June of this year – a great guitar. So, I’ve got three Les Pauls that originated from the Custom Shop. And then I’ve got the Melody Maker that I take on the road as well -- tuned to open A. I also occasionally take out a 335.

The Headhunters have been together for 30 years. It’s easy to see the upside of that, but is there a downside?

The upside is the intuition that comes with knowing how to play with one another. It’s like making a quilt, where everyone is working together. But you do have to guard against things becoming stale. That’s true for any band that’s been together a long time. Let’s face it -- I’ve been playing with Richard and Fred since 1968, off and on. And the Headhunters have been together since 1986. Thirty years is a long time. You have to keep things as fresh as possible, and not just go through the motions.

You’ve said in the past that it’s hard to capture the magic of the Headhunters’ live shows, when you go into the studio. With On Safari, do you feel you did capture some of that magic?

We did get closer, absolutely, with this album. I think that’s because we didn’t over-rehearse the songs, and things were done mostly with first and second takes. We didn’t overthink things – we just got out of the way and let the music do the talking. The Johnnie Johnson [collaborative] album came close as well, but as far as an official Headhunters album goes, this is as close as it gets.

The Headhunters continue to maintain a rigorous tour schedule. Any talk of slowing down?

Not at all. This year has been the busiest we’ve had in some time. We ended up going to Sweden in June, and then came back to play some dates in the states, and mix the new album. Then we went to the U.K. and played eight shows in a row, starting in London and ending in Glasgow, Scotland. Then we flew back to Detroit and played a few more dates. Now we’re getting ready to play Pennsylvania and then New York State. As long as our health holds up, why not? It’s a privilege to get to make music.

Collector’s Choice #15, “Greg Martin” 1958 Les Paul

Collector’s Choice #13, “Spoonful Burst” 1959 Les Paul