The Fabulous Thunderbirds,
Strong Like That
(Severn, 2016)

The Kentucky Headhunters,
On Safari
(Practice House/Plowboy, 2016)

Evolving from an earlier, more conventional rock band, the Kentucky Headhunters have been known by that name since the latter 1980s. Most will associate them with their biggest hit, a rocked-up arrangement of Bill Monroe's "Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine," released during a relatively brief golden age when country radio relaxed its steely grip and granted room for left-of-center experimentation. In those days, when I was still paying attention to what came out of Nashville, I felt a thrill every time the song floated through my car radio.

Richard and Fred Young, who founded the band, pushed forward after stardom, as it does to nearly all who undergo it, faded. The Headhunters' line-up both shifted and maintained continuity, and CD releases have followed to the present. I am embarrassed to confess that I hadn't heard any till now, when On Safari showed up as a review copy in my mail. I am always keenly aware that as much of it as I'm privileged to hear, I miss more good music than I care to contemplate. On Safari lets me know what I've been missing: a lot, apparently.

The Headhunters are only imperfectly characterized as blues-, country- or Southern rock, though these are elements of their sound. Theirs is a distinctive roots-rock into which various downhome elements have been seamlessly integrated, in the way of Creedence Clearwater Revival in its prime (or John Fogerty even now). Most of the time, the Headhunters don't sound more than broadly akin to CCR. But if to Fogerty (CCR's intellectual author and principal talent), born and raised in southern California, the South of his songs was the product of his imagination, the Headhunters claim it as their native home, affording a precision and authenticity to their approach.

Yet one of the album's most memorable songs is "Deep South Blues Again." Another standout is "Lowdown Memphis Town Blues." Both could slip onto a CCR/Fogerty album without raising an eyebrow. That, let me stress, is no criticism. At a certain point the infusion of blues-and-folk-derived music into rock 'n' roll is going to produce something like this, just as other kinds of entirely respectable songs get called Dylanesque.

What is most impressive about what the Headhunters do is their skill at synthesizing a range of downhome styles, coupled with their ability to shape a sound that both affirms and transcends the genre of hard-rock guitar, by now a cliche in most hands. Not here. The Headhunters, for one essential thing, aren't poseurs. They're not just pretending to know their blues, gospel, rockabilly, country, bluegrass, jazz and more. It's all here contained comfortably in one package, in one well-crafted rockin' song after another. Besides the earlier-mentioned, I am particularly enamored of "I Am the Hunter," "God Loves a Rolling Stone" and "Jukebox Full of Blues," but of course you'll pick your own favorites.

Like the Headhunters, the Fabulous Thunderbirds had their moment in the popular spotlight in the 1980s. Formed in 1974 by guitarist Jimmie Vaughan and harmonica player Kim Wilson, the band issued its first album in 1979. After Vaughan (the brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan) left in 1989 to pursue a solo career, Wilson has continued alongside four bandmates. I admit that I've heard their music only sporadically, but as with the Headhunters, Strong Like That attests to strong, committed music and musicians.

Though over the decades the T-Birds have added rock to their sound, their current recording is pretty much straight-ahead blues and r&b (perhaps the latter more prominent than the former), set in spare but solid settings with the emphasis on the songs, mostly well-chosen covers sung by Wilson. As grizzled road warriors these guys are always in full command. Their label, the Maryland-based Severn, happens to be among the most dependably excellent purveyors of modern but tradition-inflected blues. In my experience Severn never disappoints, and the new T-Bird disc certainly doesn't.

On this outing the T-Birds swing as much as they rock. Wilson's "Smooth," with its easy-going Motown groove, should put you into a state of bliss, while Steve Gomes' title tune calls up meaty Memphis soul-blues. Wilson's singing is confident, assured and conversational; thus, he's more like somebody speaking to you at the bar than shouting at you from the stage. In short, what you want to hear and how you want to hear it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 February 2017

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