If there’s one certainty in the music business, it’s this: if you keep recording
long enough, eventually, you’ll release an album consisting of nothing but
covers. Sometimes, it’s for fun, sometimes it’s for contractual obligation
purposes, but, eventually, it’s gonna happen.
The Kentucky Headhunters waited awhile before getting around to releasing their
contribution to the genre – Big Boss Man, which takes its title from the Elvis
number that leads off the collection – but this certainly isn’t the group’s
first foray into covers. In fact, if you delved into their entire back
discography, stretching back to 1989’s Pickin’ On Nashville, you’d easily be
able to compile an album’s worth of covers, ranging from Bill Monroe to the Lovin’ Spoonful, Norman Greenbaum to Carl Perkins.
With Big Boss Man, however, the Headhunters went in with a specific premise in
mind: to record songs taken from the Sony/ATV song catalog. The idea came about
via Tom Long, an employee with the publishing firm in question who, as it
happens, has been affiliated with the band off and on since he first saw them
perform in...get ready to gasp at this date...1976. (If you’ve ever noticed how
tight the Headhunters sound on their albums, well, that’s what happens when you
play together for almost two decades – they were founded in 1968 – before
releasing your major-label debut!)
Given the size of the Sony/ATV catalog -- to give you an idea, Long sent the
band 2500 possible songs to consider, and that ain’t even close to scratching
the surface -- it’s unfortunate that the band went with a few pedestrian
choices. “Hey Good Lookin’,” for instance, has probably been covered enough
times already, even if the Headhunters do add a bit of boogie-woogie piano
courtesy of guest Reese Wynans. On the other hand, however, the version of Patsy
Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” is changed from a major to a minor key; the
dark result reinvents the song from romantic ode to stalker’s ballad.
The most fun comes via Roger Miller’s “Chug A Lug,” a song so perfect for the
Headhunters that it’s a wonder they didn’t record it years ago, but the great
discovery -- all covers albums should have one -- comes via Buck Owens’ “Made in
Japan.” If Dwight Yoakam didn’t successfully convince you that Owens was a
country legend before “Hee-Haw,” let the Headhunters give it a try. The
aforementioned title track may well make you forget that the band are country
boys at heart; it’s all about the rock...but, then again, Elvis did perform it
at his ’68 comeback show, so that may go without saying.
A few songs play like a by-the-numbers cover band at the local saloon (“Like A
Rolling Stone,” for one, isn’t changed enough to get excited about), but if
there’s any real disappointment to the album, it’s the closer, a version of the
Beatles’ “I’m Down.” It isn’t that the Headhunters’ rendition of the track is
bad, although it does descend into guitar solo hell toward the end; it’s just
that the New Grass Revival did a country interpretation of the song some years
ago which set the industry standard, and...well, to be polite, let’s just say
that the Revival ain’t exactly running scared.
Big Boss Man is the sound of a bunch of guys let loose in the studio to have a
blast. It might not be essential listening, but, at its best, it’s a hoot, and
that’s certainly enough to warrant a few spins.