Big Riff Men


The title song on the Kentucky Headhunters’ Big Boss Man grabs you by the shoulders: giant Southern rock riffs, heavy hammer-blow bass, molten metal guitar, and an unexpected chord or two to suggest how a woolly mammoth of a metal song could break free from the 12-bar pattern. This has the pushiness you’d hear in early Hendrix and Cream, and differs drastically from Elvis’s version of the song. But there’s something missing, an emotional zing I’m just not getting; the fault may be with the lead vocals, which on the title track are adequate run-the-forklift and bring-home-the-bacon singing, and on many of the others aren’t even that. I’m not sure what’s wrong, but perhaps what I want from this singer, and this kind of music, isn’t someone who shows up to work, but rather someone who’s laid off and on the prowl.

And this pertains to the musicians as well: I wish there were a showy jerkoff like Alvin Lee on board, someone who did more than just feed the furnace. “Big Boss Man” aside—which I’ll admit is the year’s most bonecrushing single—the rough and tough tracks here just make these guys the hardest-rocking bores in show business. The prettier and more easygoing numbers, however—”Made in Japan,” “Chug a Lug,” and an engagingly silly yet solid version of “I’m Down”—get a push and pull you wouldn’t expect. In fact, the pop harmonies on “I’m Down” provide the otherwise absent zing, and combined with the group’s power are worth the price of admission.

The album’s concept is that the Headhunters are covering songs to which Sony/ATV owns the publishing rights, an idea I’d find interesting if I worked for Sony/ATV. I’m being harsh because even 35 to 40 years on I desire more from Stones-Allmans rock than for it to be made routine. And I get it, too, less from these guys than from Montgomery Gentry and their nervous right-wing ass-hattery, from Travis Tritt with his slow walk through fire, and from Shooter Jennings, who’s totally deprived in the voice box but somehow manages to take his nothing vocal cords over the top. Jennings has
something: a futile attempt at arrogance, a faith that sleazemetal and country can be made into the same thing, an insistence that his crack-up of a life
must be as significant as it is ridiculous. The Headhunters mainly have brute strength—which is not to be pooh-poohed, of course, since to score big in mastodon wrestling is no mean achievement.