Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY


February 24, 2012

From 4-H to the Grammy Awards; an unexpected trip

GLASGOW — For most teenagers in the 1960s being involved with the high school 4-H club meant an opportunity to work with animals, learn leadership skills and be involved with projects relating to agriculture, but not Greg Martin. To him 4-H meant an opportunity to play guitar in a band.

Now the lead guitarist for the Kentucky HeadHunters, he started in music as a freshman at Metcalfe County High School, playing a 4-H Talent Show with Richard Young, his brother Fred and their cousin Anthony Kenney.

After the talent show, Martin began jamming with the Young brothers and Kenney.

“That was in 1968. So that was my first real band,” Martin said.

The group went on to play together as Itchy Brother and in the late 1970s Martin landed a job playing guitar for country recording artist Ronnie McDowell, who was touring with country legend Conway Twitty.

“Everybody thought I was crazy,” McDowell said. People couldn’t understand why a country recording artist would hire a rock musician.

 “The reason I did that was because I wanted an edge to the band and to my music,” he said.

McDowell refers to Martin as being “one of the premier guitar players.”

“He’s as good as Eric Clapton and BB King. That’s the kind of category I put him in,” McDowell said.

McDowell hired Doug Phelps about the same time he hired Martin and said “... they had long hair even back then.”

In the mid-1980s Martin left McDowell to reunite with the Young brothers. He brought Phelps with him and along with the Young brothers and Kenney they enlisted Phelps’ brother, Ricky, to form the Kentucky HeadHunters.

The HeadHunters won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with their first album, “Pickin’ On Nashville,” in 1990 and has been nominated for a Grammy award on four occasions. They have also won two Country Music Awards for Best Vocal Group of the Year in 1990 and 1991.

The band released its 12th album, “Dixie Lullabies,” in the fall of 2011.

The new album was recorded at the band’s practice house in Metcalfe County on the Young brothers’ farm.  While the vocals were being recorded for  the new album, Martin took time to do the Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches Cruise with Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie – a gig he has done three times in the past.

Martin explained the HeadHunters always take top priority, but when time allows he and other members of the band find time to squeeze in other projects.

“Richard will work with Black Stone Cherry. Doug works with Dixie Tabernacle. Fred Young does what he wants to do and that’s work on tractors,” Martin said. “Basically, if I know I’ve got a week off or two weeks off I will start another project.”

In 1992 Martin found a three-week time frame to play guitar with Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“But that was basically at a time when the HeadHunters were going through a transition,” he said. “Ricky and Doug were getting ready to leave and it just kind of worked out. Number one, I tell people I’ll do it if it’s something I want to do, but if the HeadHunters have got a gig I have to go do the HeadHunters.”

In addition to playing with the HeadHunters, Martin also plays with Rufus Huff, a local rock band.

“It’s kind of neat because Rufus Huff is not anything like the HeadHunters,” he said. “It’s got more of a ’70s slant.”

He also does a radio show called the “Lowdown, Hoedown,” on WDNS-FM and recently celebrated his 10-year anniversary of doing the show in November.

In his spare time he plays with a Louisville-based blues band called The Straycat Blues Band and with a rock gospel group called The Mighty Jeremiahs, along with his step-son, Jon McGee of Taildragger, and with Hall. Occasionally, he will play with the praise band at Immanuel Baptist Church in Glasgow.

One of his latest projects with Rufus Huff has been a tribute to songwriter J.J. Cale, whose songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins.

“Everybody was picking out some J.J. Cale songs and the CEO at the label wanted to know if Rufus Huff wanted to contribute a couple of tunes, so we did a couple of versions of  ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Crazy Momma,’” Martin said.

The CD, “Tribute to J.J. Cale, Volume One, the Vocal Sessions,” was released in 2010.  

Like most guitar players, Martin owns more than one. He estimates he has about 20 to 25 in his collection.

One of the first guitars he owned was a mid-1950s Gretsch with a silver sparkle finish that was given to him by his brother, Gary.

“When he gave it to me, he had painted the thing black. He didn’t like the silver sparkle finish, which I think is very cool,” Martin said.

His brother was in the process of taking the guitar a part when he decided to give it away.

“He gave me the guitar and parts and I spent a weekend on my aunt’s porch in Edmonton, along with a friend, scraping the paint off and getting the guitar back together,” he said. “So that was my first really good guitar thanks to Gary.”

His brother helped him score another guitar.

“In 1969 my brother worked at a pawn shop. A gentleman came in who had a ’50s Les Paul Special, a yellow one, that he wanted to sell. Gary kind of did something he wasn’t supposed to do. He refused the guitar,” Martin said.

Instead, his brother got the guy’s number and he, Martin and their dad went to the man’s house and bought the Les Paul.

The guitar had an effect on the type of sound Martin was trying to achieve with his music.

“Back then we were using peddles to change the sound,” he said. “I was always striving for a sound but I didn’t know how to get it. The peddles were just kind of marring it up so to speak. It did change and it put me on a better path for what I was wanting to go for.”

It was his first Les Paul.

He estimates he has between eight to 10 Les Paul guitars, but his pride and joy, is a 1958 model that was given to him by Hank Williams Jr. in 1990.

In 2010 Martin signed a contract with Gibson to allow copies of the guitar to be made.

“They haven’t done it yet,” he said. “I’ve got the prototype. It’s just a matter of Gibson now going, ‘OK, we’re going to do the run.’”

Martin was recently featured on the cover of “Vintage Guitar Magazine” along with Chris Robertson and Ben Wells of Black Stone Cherry.

“A big part of the story is on my Les Paul,” Martin said.

Martin isn’t sure if Williams knows the guitar he gave to him is being copied, but every time Martin sees him he asks, “‘You’re still playing that Les Paul, aren’t you?’ I go, ‘Yes, sir.’ He’ll be happy. I’ll have to get him one. I owe Hank Jr. a lot,” Martin said. “I will never sell that guitar. It’s with me until they pry it out of my hands.”

An attempt to reach Williams for comment was unsuccessful. According to his publicist, he was out of the state on a hunting trip.

Martin has been known to take the 1958 Les Paul with him on tour with the HeadHunters and when he does he sometimes does something to the guitar that makes his fellow HeadHunter nervous.

“I used to worry so much. Greg would carry it on the road with us. He would get up to get a bag of potato chips or something and we would be going down the road and he would just set it up against the wall,” said Richard Young. “A Les Paul, it’s very easy to damage the neck on one. The Fenders are made with a flat headstock that is perpendicular with the neck and a Gibson has a sloped back. If it falls backwards, nine times out of 10 it will snap that off of there.”

Looking back to the weekend he spent putting the mid-1950s Gretsch together on his aunt’s porch, Martin said he had no clue he would be where he is now.

“I think at that moment I knew guitar was going to be my life, but honestly, when I started playing with Richard and Fred, when we played the Glasgow Armory in 1968 at the Toys for Tots show I thought I had made it,” he said. “It seemed like from that point on there were different bench marks.”

In 1970 Martin appeared with the Young brothers and Kenney on WSMV-TV’s “Young Country” program as a member of Itchy Brother.

“It just seemed like little things happened that moved the bar up a little bit,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are from. God puts you in a unique spot and when we meet people like Robert Plant, or you’re at a Grammy show and Eric Clapton walks by, you’re like, ‘How did this ever happen?’”

Martin, who is now 58, doubts he will ever retire. He hopes to record an instrumental CD one day, as well as another Rufus Huff CD and another HeadHunter CD.

“The cooler things that happen are the things that you didn’t plan on doing. They just kind of present themselves out of the blue..., and you go, ‘Wow, that is even cooler than what I was thinking about doing,’” he said.

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