soundcheck song festival headhunters kentucky air randy owen talent tele suffer ears wade poor sound low

An opening act saves the day when John runs into trouble headlining a festival.

John and his heroes, The Kentucky Headhunters, posing for the lousy cell phone photo.
Recently, I played an outdoor country music festival in Huntsville, Ala., with headliner Randy Owen. The downside of being a headliner is that you soundcheck first (around 10 am) and play last (around 11 pm). During our soundcheck, my rig sounded the best it had ever sounded. Perhaps my amp sounded so good right then because it secretly knew that this soundcheck was its swan song. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn the amp was terminally ill until it left me playing air guitar in front of 40,000 people some 13 hours later.

I usually spend festival days hanging in the wings watching the other acts. I was thrilled to learn that The Kentucky Headhunters were playing two acts before us. To stand stage right of Greg Martin’s 1973 Les Paul Custom ripping through his dimed 1974 Marshall Super Lead is a glorious thing. Those 100 watts of ear-splitting power were peeling paint off the stage. Though the playing and tone were brilliant, I felt like I was standing in front of a Boeing 777 jet engine. I caught the back half of the show from Richard Young’s side of the stage, where his 1952 Tele (the real deal) and vintage Fender Bassman felt kinder and gentler to my bludgeoned ears.

An hour later when we took the stage it was immediately clear that something was wrong with my rig. My guitar sounded distant and small. I ran back and checked mic placement and it looked OK. My amp settings looked normal but I cranked it up, then my amp got very loud, then thin, then quiet, then louder, then silent. I bypassed my pedalboard—still dead. I went back to my amp, which was semi-hidden behind our drum riser and turned it on and off … light on, no sound. Fear and frustration set in and I began pounding on it with my fist like a doctor trying to resuscitate a flatlined patient; keep in mind the band is now playing our second song and 40,000 people can see me beating the shit out of something behind the drums. For years I carried a spare head on the road with me, but after it remained unused for a few hundred shows, the optimist inside of me left it at home. I silently cursed my formerly positive attitude.

The next song I had a solo, so our other guitarist Wade Hayes, a talented and generous man, switched to acoustic and handed me his Tele; regrettably, his guitar was way hot in his mix and low in mine, so poor Wade had to suffer through my blowing loud and proud in his ears. During this song I ran over to our sound man and shouted over his mixing board that I’m D.O.A. He ran over to my amp, checked it then disappeared. When he returned, he motioned me to the side of the stage and said that the Headhunters were hooking me up. I prayed that they were bringing the Bassman and not the Marshall. Greg’s tone is fantastic, but would not be a particularly good fit for songs like “Dixieland Delight.” Within minutes, The Kentucky Headhunter’s band and crew rolled an amp case on deck, pulled the top off the road case and plugged my cable into Richard’s Bassman. I was back in the mix halfway into our third song and man, I gotta tell you, playing through that legendary rig was both a thrill and relief.

This was an incredibly kind gesture on the Headhunter’s part. Not only did they have to unpack and repack their gear, but they had to stay until the end of our set, which added hours onto their night. After the show, I thanked them and they couldn’t have been more kind. We ended up hanging out and talking, and they even posed for a lousy cell phone photo.

The Headhunter’s first CD, Pickin’ on Nashville, with it’s turbocharged blending of Cream-era Clapton with Bill Monroe and Don Gibson, inspired me as a kid. I’m not sure I would be living in Nashville today had I not heard these guys. It’s been a while since I bought a CD (I learn so much music for work that my ears need to give it a rest during my off hours), but I bought their newest release, The Kentucky Headhunters Live/ Agora Ballroom. Hearing this honest-to-God live band in full flight made me want to start a band and steal their set list.

Hunter S. Thompson said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” Over the years I’ve seen some evidence substantiating Thompson’s quote, but I’ve also witnessed first hand incredible generosity and kindness from our fellow musicians. It turns out you can meet your heroes and not be disappointed.

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