As a young guitarist, Ronnie Younkins wanted rock ‘n’ roll to take him as far as he could go. Now, music brings this Blues Vulture home.
On a Saturday night at Cactus Flats, Ronnie Younkins straps on his electric guitar, turns his back to the bar crowd and adjusts the tower of amplifiers behind him.
It’s the sort of scene Younkins used to play when he was just a Frederick farm boy with rock star dreams. The roadhouse surrounded by cornfields north of Frederick is packed with men who sport graying ponytails and women sipping mixed drinks from plastic cups. Some have come just to hear Younkins and his band, the Blues Vultures.
Younkins has performed to crowds of thousands, tens of thousands. He’s had Billboard hits, MTV videos and national tours. On this night he’ll play for three or four dozen people, with just a drummer (his neighbor) and bass player (a 19-year-old music student) beside him. No roadies or groupies. No smoke machines or laser shows. This place doesn’t even have a stage.
When he was young, Younkins earned the nickname “10/10,” because he cranked the volume on his guitar and amps as high as they’d go. Forty years later, after his rock star dreams came true, shattered and reassembled here, the name still fits. His warm-up chords drown out the bar din.
Fans remember Younkins as the guitarist for Kix, a local hard rock band that rose to national fame in the 1980s with so-called “hair bands” famous for teased-out tresses, heavy metal anthems and power chord ballads. When tastes changed, Kix collapsed with them, and fell short of the phenomenon it seemed destined to be.
“For me, they got pretty far,” says Al Hefner, who came from Gaithersburg to see the show. “Around here, they’re, like, one of the top bands.”
Hefner remembers seeing Kix when he was 18. At 55, he still wears a Kix T-shirt and catches Younkins whenever he can.
“I’ve been seeing him for like 30-some years,” he says. “Pretty much every show.”
The Blues Vultures are a world away from Kix. The title of their first CD, “Cheap Guitars & Honkey Tonk Bars,” says it all. They play straight-ahead blues-inspired “roots rock,” including songs penned by Younkins and covers of classics by bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
Younkins looks more than a little like Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith who he idolized as a kid and still loves. He’s 58, thin and pale, with long, straight brown hair and a face that’s almost skeletal. He wears tiny rose-tinted glasses, pointed boots, flared black jeans and a purple velour shirt over a black Blues Vultures T-shirt. His electric Gibson hangs low over his hips.
“It’s not going to get any prettier,” he jokes to the crowd, then turns to the band and nods a cue. “Here we go!”
After a career that took him to the brink of stardom, Younkins has come home.
Born to rock ’n’ roll
By Younkins’ reckoning, the great age of rock ’n’ roll ended around 1978, right about the time he started the band that would become Kix. Born in 1956, the year rock ’n’ roll took over the pop charts, he saw his life defined by music.
He grew up listening to country-and-western on the radio in his father’s barn south of Frederick. By the time he was 9, he was taking guitar lessons. When he heard the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, his life changed.
“I thought, ‘That’s it!’” Younkins says. “That’s the sound. That’s the guitars. That’s the voices. That’s the song. Not to mention the look. The vibe. The whole thing. The whole package deal.”
He started playing cover songs with local bands in high school, but when he hit his 20s, he was looking for something more. He wanted a band that played its own material and could take him beyond the local bar scene. He wanted to be a rock star.
“I was looking for the right guys to play with that could take it as far as it could go,” Younkins says. “And I found them. It was a blessing.”
”We gotta make it to the top”
In December 1977, Younkins hooked up with Donnie Purnell, a bassist from Hagerstown, and a couple musicians from Pittsburgh. They called themselves The Shooze. The lineup didn’t last. Band members came and went. But a year later, a five-member band took shape, with Purnell the creative force and songwriter, Younkins the hard-driving guitarist, and Steve Whiteman, a blonde-haired kid from Piedmont, W.Va., with the high voice that was becoming the iconic sound of heavy metal, as lead singer.
The Shooze became The Generators. The Generators became Kix. They had the look, the sound and the attitude of ’80s metal.
“My ego at that time was like, we gotta make it to the top,” Younkins says. “It was a mindset. It was a passion. We sacrificed everything. Girlfriends. Wives. Personal lives.”
Their sacrifices paid off. In 1980, after moving to Hagerstown, devoting themselves full time to the band and playing to ever-growing crowds, Kix won a deal with Atlantic Records. The following year, they released their self-titled debut album.
“We were a package,” Younkins says. “We had a sound. We knew what we wanted and we went after it.”
But he didn’t like what was happening to rock: New Wave on the one hand, glam rock on the other. Bands with big hair and spandex were dominating the metal airwaves. Kix started to appear in skin-tight leather and long, teased locks. The changes didn’t always sit well with Younkins, who remained rooted in classic rock. In old publicity shots of the band posing in ripped up jeans, wavy hair and bangs, Younkins sported a Rolling Stones patch.
“Even though Kix was a product of that time, I was never a fan of that,” Younkins says. “I couldn’t stand those other bands, the hair bands with the pointed guitars and all that stuff. We were absolutely lumped in with all of them, and we were eight, nine, 10 years older than all those guys.”
Blowing his fuse
As Kix’s fame grew, Younkins personal life spiraled into the mire of hard drugs and alcohol that fueled the music scene. Before their second album “Cool Kids” came out in 1982, the band kicked him out. He came back for their third album, “Midnite Dynamite,” then their fourth, each selling more than the one before it. But as the band was promoting 1988’s “Blow My Fuse,” Younkins blew his own fuse.
“My drinking and drugging went overboard,” he says.
He landed in rehab, an experience that turned his life around. Out on tour, he played gigs at night and attended addiction meetings during the day.
“I took it seriously,” he says. “And it saved my life.”
“Blow My Fuse” went platinum. Driven by the ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” an MTV hit that climbed to 11 on the Billboard charts, it sold 1 million copies. Kix started touring arenas packed with 25,000 music fans, opening for legends like Aerosmith, AC/DC and ZZ Top: bands that were their heroes.
It seemed like the little band from Maryland would keep climbing.
Then the music stopped.
A new party in town
“What we see was the changing of the guard by ’91,” says Deena Weinstein, a rock historian and sociology professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
Rock was reshaping. Grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam took over the radio. Hair bands seemed like Reagan-era relics.
“The rise and fall of those bands is really interesting,” Weinstein says. “It was a whole style that came into being at a given time and left at another time, all together. That rarely happens.”
Kix put out two more albums, but they never reached the success they knew before.
“We just felt like there was a new party in town and we weren’t invited,” Whiteman, Kix’s frontman, told Ruben Mosqueda of the Sleaze Roxx website in 2012. “We found that the clubs were paying less money for bands like us and it got to the point where we couldn’t even support ourselves anymore. The business pretty much kicked us out.”
Far from making big money off their big hits, the band, like many of its day, ended up in debt to the record company. Eleven was as high as Kix would climb on the charts.
“I felt that many times: We didn’t make it to the Top 10,” Younkins says. “Oh, well. We were just one number away.”
Today, the frizziness is gone from Younkins’ hair. The arena tours are past. But there’s still a crowd, a band and music.
The Blues Vultures brings Younkins back to the music he loved as a kid and longed for in Kix.
“It’s a dream come true,” says drummer Ron Ross, who at 50 gets to be a rock star a couple times a month. Ross is a deejay on Sirius XM Radio’s The Pulse, playing pop songs by other bands. When the Blues Vultures take the stage, he’s not spinning other peoples’ music. He’s making his own. “I’m having the time of my life,” he says.
Playing with Younkins is inspiring, Ross says, because his passion for the music is so strong. “He’s got a reverence for it.”
Back to his roots
Kix formally called it quits in 1996, broken by rivalries as much as declining sales.
Whiteman formed his own band. Younkins hung around Los Angeles, rubbing shoulders with musicians from Kiss and Guns N’ Roses. He started writing his own music for the first time. He also had to work a day job for the first time.
He came back to Maryland three years later when his mother fell ill with cancer. Younkins married a girl from Germany and they settled in Middletown. He tried playing part-time in a few bands before he ended up stocking shelves for Food Lion. But in his spare time, he started auditioning musicians for a new band.
“I needed for myself and my soul to go back to the roots of rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “I always go back to my roots. That’s what moves me. That’s what inspires me. That’s what I love.”
Younkins drafted a drummer and a bass player from area bands and assembled a playlist that ranged from “Hound Dog” to Jimi Hendrix. But being in a band wasn’t like it used to be. Members had jobs and families now. Even Younkins. In 2009, his daughter Bianca was born.
“Guitar used to be No. 1,” he says. “Now Bianca’s No. 1. Guitar’s No. 2.”
The lineup of the Blues Vultures changed, and changed again, as they put out one, then two CDs. The sales aren’t like they were for Kix, Younkins says, but the checks are bigger than any royalty he ever got from Atlantic Records.
The current lineup is just Younkins, Ross and Dylan Howes, a UMBC music student, on bass.
Playing with Younkins is like playing with a legend, Howes says. “Everyone my parents’ age, they know him. Everyone in this area, they know him.”
While the Blues Vultures make the rounds of local bars, Kix has made its return, too.
Younkins and Whiteman ended up playing a show together around 2006 and jammed on a few Kix tunes. Fans loved it. That started talk of a reunion. Four of the five original Kix members started getting back together for occasional shows. Spence, separated by a long-running feud with Whiteman, has sat them out.
The band plays in front of thousands again at festivals like Rocklahoma, where aging metal heads gather in Pryor, Oklahoma, to hear bands like Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe play the music of their youth. And they take the stage on the annual Monsters of Rock Cruise, sailing from Miami to the Bahamas and back with bands like Queensryche and Stryper.
In August, Kix released its first album in 19 years, “Rock Your Face Off,” putting the band on stage at venues from Hummels Wharf, Pennsylvania, to Houston. They’re scheduled to play at the Brunswick fire hall Dec. 19 and then in Baltimore Dec. 20.
But it’s the Blues Vultures, not Kix, that Younkins likes to talk about. It’s his music. It’s his band.
“I’m grateful for the old band and all they did,” he says. “I love those guys and sometimes I really miss them. But the new guys are stepping up to bat at a time when I really need them.”
By the end of the Blues Vultures’ first set at Cactus Flats, the crowd is up and dancing in the space between the bar and the band. In a gravelly voice drowned out by his guitar, Younkins sings for an hour before taking a break. He disappears for a while, but soon he’s back, slinging on his Fender, looking ready to play as long as people will listen.
On his cue, the band starts to play a Rolling Stones song.
“I was washed up and left for dead,” Younkins sings. “But it’s all right now.”