You were out with the Kentucky HeadHunters?'' My brother-in-law was amused. Yes, I replied, three days in six different states with the biggest country band of the '90s. I was about to explain how they had reached that pinnacle of success, how their brand of country music was more like '70s Southern rock and what that said about the state of both country and pop radio in the '90s.
But my brother-in-law, who happens to be a fan of the HeadHunters, wanted to know only one thing: ''So, do they bathe?''
You can't blame him for asking. The HeadHunters may have a debut album, 1989's Pickin' on Nashville, that has sold 1.5 million copies; a bowling-trophy case full of prizes, from a Grammy to three Country Music Association awards; and a just-released second record, Electric Barnyard, that shipped gold (500,000 copies), rare for a country album. And they command as much as $35,000 a night on the concert circuit, up from $2,500 a mere 18 months ago.
All well and good, but cold, hard figures are not what have distinguished the Heads. With their greasy-spoon country rock, their penchant for wearing jeans and T-shirts that look like they came from the bottom of last week's laundry bag, and the Miller Time ambience of their videos (especially their most popular clip, ''Dumas Walker,'' an ode to slawburgers and other joys of truck-stop dining), they have cultivated one basic perception: that they are backwoods hell-raisers who barely have the time to shower or shave. They are, simply, the Everyslobs.
It's no pose, either: When they pull into a roadside diner in White Haven, Pa., for a meal before the overnight drive to Ohio, none of the coffee- swilling regulars suspects that the haggard-faced, long-haired guys chowing down in their midst are platinum-selling superstars, and not guys from the auto plant who've just finished the night shift. As pudgy guitarist Richard Young, 36, says while the group's bus plows down Interstate 80, ''The secret to being a star is not looking like one.''
If the HeadHunters look like weathered survivors of '70s rock, it's because most of them are. In 1968, brothers Richard and Fred Young and their cousin, guitarist Greg Martin, got together in Louisville, Ky., and formed a rock band called Itchy Brother. By 1981, however, Southern rock was a dead issue, and the group, unable to support themselves, more or less folded. ''We'd watch that show on television, thirtysomething, and all those guys got good jobs and are supporting a family,'' says Richard the next afternoon in his hotel room in Mansfield, Ohio. ''And here we were on the same bar circuit we were playing in '75, and we're thinking, 'I wish something good would happen to us.'''
Something did: During the '80s, the older rock audience, rooted in '60s and '70s pop and disenchanted with dance music and rap, went in search of familiar and comforting sounds and the marketplace adjusted. Country music came to encompass everything from such middle-of-the-road balladeers as Kenny Rogers to slick, pop-influenced bands like Alabama and harder-edged singer-songwriters like Steve Earle. ''Hearing guys like Earle,'' says curly-headed bassist-singer Doug Phelps, 30, ''we thought, 'Hey, maybe there is a chance for us.''' PolyGram's Nashville division gave them that opportunity, signing the band and releasing their self-produced $4,500 tape.
You'd think the men who make music like the twang and brawn of the HeadHunters would make the Wild Bunch fear for their image, but that's not the case. ''Everybody thinks we're the wildest things goin','' says Phelps. ''They go, 'Hey, I wanna party with you guys!' And we say, 'Okay bring along a pot of coffee!'''
Indeed, the Heads are five unpretentious, personable guys three of them married who make no bones about being the great unwashed. When not onstage, they gulp Yoo-Hoo and the occasional beer. They spend time on their bus writing letters home and playing CDs by Cream or the Beatles. They cope with bunions. Their tour bus has the look and feel of a traveling coffee shop. When Fred Young buys a can of lubricating oil at the Pennsylvania diner's coffee shop and drawls, ''This is the secret of everythang,'' he's not talking about using it for on-the-road debauchery with groupies and barnyard animals. He's thinking about oiling his tractor when he gets back to the family farm near Edmonton, Ky.
Even in their music, the HeadHunters remain a bar band at heart. Part rock concert, part county-fair sideshow, their concerts are entertainment for the whole family, as the 8-to-48 crowd at their show in Mansfield's Renaissance Theatre attests. For the young girls, there's the mountain-man sex appeal of Doug Phelps and his brother Ricky Lee, the band's 37-year-old lead singer, who leaps on and off the drum riser and juggles bowling pins during instrumental solos. For the beer-hoisting frat boys, there are drum and guitar solos and covers of songs by Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. For country fans, there are barnstorming versions of such well-loved country songs as Bill Monroe's ''Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,'' the band's first hit. What unites this diverse crowd is the HeadHunters' very ordinariness. Whether they know it or not, the group gives hope to those fans who, if they can't be pop stars themselves, at least can watch somebody just like them get ogled by teenyboppers. As Richard Young says, ''As long as you have a dream, there's always the chance it'll come true.''
Just ask Ricky Lee Phelps. A few years ago, the singer worked as director of the Museum of Beverage Containers and Advertising near Nashville. Onstage, though, he whirls himself into a frenzy, especially during the HeadHunters' to-hell-with-pity version of the country ballad ''Oh Lonesome Me.'' ''I have a ball up there,'' Phelps says the next morning in Baltimore, ''and I forget about everything else.''
An hour later, the band is being taped in their hotel for a TV show. Referring to their appearance on the Grammy Awards broadcast, the interviewer good-naturedly asks, ''Couldn't you at least have rented tuxes?'' She has no idea that Richard Young is wearing the same green corduroy shirt he wore the afternoon and night before and that he couldn't care less. For now, at least, the baths will have to wait.