If Louisville Magazine were to give an annual award for Party of the Year, it would be the Kentuckiana Blues Society's 21st Birthday Party on Saturday, November 14, at the Vernon Club. Last year, the 20th Birthday Party was such a success, the KBS decided to fine-tune it to make it even better. The Vernon Club at 1575 Story Ave. is quickly becoming known as one of the best local venues to celebrate and hear good music.
You arrive at the back of the historic 125-year-old Victorian building and descend a few steps. Once you enter through a plain pair of metal doors, you pass through a corridor and, voila, this unassuming entry has become a dramatic destination to party. Owner Dale McCall has added new restrooms for patrons and a green room for musicians. The sound system has been upgraded by co-owner Nick Stevens and the ball returns for the eight-lane bowling alley above have been enclosed. Every Thursday, Woody Chancy and Matt Anthony have teamed up for Bowling and Wax from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on the alleys upstairs. The downstairs space is not pretentious but has just the right mix of casual ambiance. There are additional areas near the large semi-circular stage for catering meals, selling merchandise and displaying art. The KBS took advantage of the whole space with food provided by Fire Fresh BBQ, raffles for blues baskets and an Epiphone guitar, an exhibit of Jim Masterson's portraits of blues legends and an updated Powerpoint presentation of the history of the KBS assembled by Natalie Carter, plus a birthday cake in the shape of a guitar prepared by Jeanie Doak. From 6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Vernon's became a world-class blues club.
The parking lot was filled and the room was packed by the time the music started at 7:15 p.m.. After a quick sound check by Josh Garrett and Bottom Line, who was the second act and the backup band for the headliner, Jon Boy Slim was ready to open. He was the winner of the KBS Solo/Duo competition and will be representing the Society at the International Blues Competition in late January. Jon Boy is one of the hardest-working local musicians, performing Thursday through Saturday at O'Shea's Irish Pub, Bearno's (Highlands) and River Bend Winery. His eclectic take on the blues draws from various original sources of ragtime to upbeat ballads. Josh Garrett, a Louisiana native, brought plenty of spicy gumbo to the party with youthful energy and driving horns. They have been touring extensively the past five years, including two recent appearances at Stevie Ray's. When they got into a Cajun version of "I Go My Mojo Workin'," even resident photographer David True had to put his camera down and dance with the lady in the red dress. Their set climaxed with "When The Saints Go Marching In," where Josh and his two horn players paraded through the ecstatic crowd.
The main "must see and hear" of the night was the legendary Jimmy Hall, who was one of the founding members of Wet Willie forty years ago. To add a little fuel to the fire, I had invited Greg Martin to the party. Greg jumped at the chance when he knew Jimmy was going to play. These two musicians go way back, performing and recording together with the Mighty Jeremiahs and sailing on a couple of Delbert McClinton blues cruises. The reunion was to be a surprise for Jimmy as Greg casually entered the green room with KBS president Gary Sampson and me before his set. When it was showtime, Jimmy put on his shades and strapped on his black belt with eight harp holsters and blew everyone away for the next ninety minutes. Greg played with the band the entire set, trading guitar licks with Josh. Greg rarely does any vocals, as he sings through his guitar strings, creating thunder with his bass notes and screaming on the high notes. The play list was pure party music: "29 Lives," "Don't Hit Me No More," and "I'm In A Phone Booth," which became an extended blues jam. Without any break, the music continued with "Bourbon Street Parade," "Long Distance Call," "Too Tired to Mambo," "Hold On To What You Got (Save It All For Me) and "That's Alright, Mama." Jimmy's vocals got grittier, his harp resonated mellower and his sax wailed soulfully as he responded to the excitement of the audience and sharing the stage with Josh and his band plus Greg. I have never heard a version of "Grits Ain't Groceries" like Jimmy did, for we were all into the moment. Finally, we were all redeemed with "Amazing Grace," which segued into "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," resurrecting the spirit of the Mighty Jeremiahs. There were 310 witnesses that passed through the door that night to verify that the KBS is barely legal at 21.
A week before the KBS party, I interviewed Greg Martin to get the lowdown on what he had been doing the past nineteen years since Jean Metcalfe first told us about Greg and The Kentucky Headhunters for Louisville Music News. I had some follow up questions for Greg from her excellent two-part article.
1. Does Effie Young's old practice house still exist? Yes, it still stands on the farm near Wisdom, Kentucky in Metcalfe County. The Headhunters will be using it next week to work up some new songs. Blackstone Cherry, which has a large following in Europe, also practices in the house.
2. Are there any more "Pink Insert" cassette tapes of the eight songs which were the basis for the Headhunters' first album, Pickin' On Nashville? Greg thought there might be a few in boxes at his house. The tape was recorded at Acuff-Rose Studio and has a picture of Merle Travis' guitar ‘The Traveler' on the cover. These tapes are rare collector's items, as only five hundred were made.
3. What about the video "Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine" that accelerated the sales of their first record to platinum? Greg said "There was originally resistance from the radio stations for air play, because they couldn't figure out The Headhunters, but when the video was released by Mercury in the fall of 1989 the public really latched on to the songs."
4. Do you still collect vintage Marshall amps? Greg has about twenty of these amps. He said "The Brits, like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jimmy Page, started playing their Les Pauls on their Marshalls. I love their history and sound."
5. Do you still have the Les Paul 1958 sunburst guitar that Hank Williams Jr. lent you when the Headhunters used to open for him? Greg said he still occasionally plays it. Williams officially bestowed the guitar on Greg in 1990 when he said, "You're makin' enough money to buy one of those." That's when Williams let him keep it. All Greg ever wanted in life was a house, a wife and a 1958 Les Paul guitar. This guitar came from Chicago and belonged to Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd before Williams owned it.
6. What happened to the Taking Care of Business (TCB) touring bus that once belonged to Elvis? In the spring of 1992, when the original Headhunters imploded, they had to liquidate the bus and it was sold to a collector, ending up in the northwest. Then it went to Wisconsin and now it's down in Florida. The present owner has taken it back to its original brown color scheme with TCB on the sides and the Headhunters' logo on the back. The interior was from the Seventies with a TV and VCR. Greg said, "it was most uncomfortable to ride on, shaking you all over the place, like riding on a turnip wagon." They got two years out of it
After my questions were answered, Greg talked about what had happened since 1990. In the summer of 1991, the band was to go to England, opening for Dire Straits. That never happened due to the outbreak of the Gulf War. The second album on Polygram, Electric Barnyard, came out that year and was rockier. Greg said the band got more aggressive and lost some of their musical innocence when traveling with Williams. Several other releases have followed, including Rave On!, That'll Work with Johnnie Johnson, Still Pickin', Stompin' Ground, Songs From The Grass, Songs From The Grass String Ranch, Soul, Big Boss Man, and Flying Under the Radar. There will be a new release by Mercury on their "authorized bootleg series" called Live At The Agora which was recorded in Cleveland in 1990. There is another future project that will be some more tracks that were cut with Johnnie Johnson. Greg felt there were really nice spontaneous moments with Johnnie while the tapes were rolling.
Greg was always infatuated with radio. He grew up listening to AM radio like WAKY and WLOU. As a kid living in Louisville's South End, he would take the TARC bus downtown to the Showcase Window on Chestnut Street and watch Johnny Randolph on WKLO. In 1986 Greg started a little Monday night show,"Blue Monday," on WLOC in Munfordville . The Headhunters also had their "Chitlin' Show," where they played live on the air. Greg later did a weekly southern rock/blues show in Campbellsville on WDLC from November 1997 to April 2000, which was the genesis of the current "Low Down Hoe Down." Greg did some crazy things on these high-energy shows that got him in trouble with management several times. When the engineer got burnt out, Greg reluctantly left the station and went with WDNS in Bowling Green. He officially started his program, "Low Down Hoe Down," in November 2001. which has been running every Monday night. Greg has had many drop-in guests, including Mike Henderson of the Blue Bloods; champion Australian finger-picker Tommy Emmanuel; Exile's J.P. Pennington, who did a duet with Greg, and John Sebastian, who played some Mississippi John Hurt over the phone.
Next month we will continue my interview with Greg when he will talk about the formation of the Mighty Jeremiahs and Rufus Huff, the continuing success of The Kentucky Headhunters and Greg's experiences with blues greats.