John Rich looked at Big Kenny. Big Kenny looked back at John. This happened a couple of years ago, early on in a strange and wonderful musical odyssey.
"You know what you are, Big Kenny?" said John.
"What?" said Big Kenny.
"You're a planet."
"Well, you're a planet, too."
John nodded. Maybe it was the coffee or the Crown Royal working, but this made perfect sense to him. "You know what happens when two planets collide?" he asked.
"You get a whole new universe."
Here, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, is that new universe: Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color. Two guys, thirteen songs. The kind of genre-hopping, fence-busting, gully-whumping statement of purpose that doesn't bust out of Nashville or New York, or L.A., or anywhere else-too often these days. It may well be that true rarity in the music business: something new under the sun. "Country music without prejudice," they call it.
The universe of Big & Rich is a rollicking moveable feast inhabited by a cast of indelible characters, starting with Messrs. Big and Rich themselves. One's a six-foot-three former carpenter with a rep as Nashville's universal minister of love and a backlog of songs ranging from country laments to psychedelic rockers to something called "Disco Ball." The other's shorter, slyer and younger, a Texan with an angelic voice and a wicked gleam in his eye.
And surrounding them is a batch of remarkable sidekicks: the Wild Bunch meets the Rat Pack, you might say. There's Cowboy Troy, the world's only six-foot, five-inch, 250-pound black cowboy rapper, who throws down in three languages and has a degree in economics to boot. There's Limo Larry, once a homeless drug addict and now a local legend who uses his limousine to ferry off-duty strippers and inebriated musicians around Nashville every night. There's Tim the Electrician, a tough little guy with a big mustache and a beer-swigging red macaw named Santana who clings to his owner's shoulder while Tim practices the sport he's invented, championship chair riding. (Apparently, it's harder than it sounds.) There are songwriters and drifters, millionaires and ne'er-do-wells, punk rockers and bluegrass pickers and young ladies in Catholic schoolgirl outfits. Theres the reigning queen of country music, Martina McBride, a fan and a friend, and there's a truckload of unknowns who might well make it big themselves someday.
The scene is chronicled in the songs on Horse of a Different Color-in the vow of brotherhood that runs through "Wild West Show," in the heartbreaking "Holy Water," and in the roadhouse lament "Kick My Ass," which asks a question we've all pondered on occasion: "Why does everybody want to kick my ass?" Big & Rich are throwing a party, and it's important to them that you understand everybody is invited. They can be wild and wooly and uproariously funny, but there's a method to their madness: these guys aren't always serious, but you're selling them short if you think they're always kidding.
"Music just shouldn't have limits, man," says Big Kenny. (Yeah, that's his name. First name, Big. Last name, Kenny.) "We grab 'em with the humor and the happiness, but then we want them to feel every emotion. And you can do anything you want with a song. You can make people laugh, but you can also make them cry if that's what you're after. And when it's all over they feel better, they feel hope, they feel bright, they feel love..."
"And sometimes," adds John, "they feel like somebody's slammed a lighting bolt upside their head. Which we like to do every now and then. I mean, it's fun to shake stuff up by bringing out your Mandarin Chinese-rapping black cowboy godfather."
"I ain't gonna shut my mouth
Don't mind if I stand out in a crowd
Just want to live out loud
I know there's got to be a few hundred million more like me
Just trying to keep it free."
"Rollin' (The Ballad of Big and Rich)"
When John Rich met Big Kenny in 1998, both had been through the record industry wringer. The stories are typical, the details unimportant. John was in a band, he had hits, he went solo, he scrambled for attention and a new record deal. Big Kenny, who didn't become a full-time musician until he was in his thirties, got a big record deal but saw the ensuing album go nowhere, then fronted a wild outfit called luvjOi.
A friend tried to drag John to one of Kenny's shows at a Nashville club; John's response, he says, was "Big what? I don't think I want to see anybody named that." But he went anyway-whereupon he was whacked in face by one of the many pieces of bubblegum thrown from the stage into the audience. (I thought that everybody who came to one of my shows should leave with something'" explains Big Kenny, not unreasonably.) Despite the tensions caused by this aerial assault, the two men met after the show and made tentative arrangements to write songs together. Then one or the other of them blew off the first three appointments. "As John has said, we were like two old bird dogs sniffing each other," says Big Kenny.
When they finally did get together, they liked the first song they wrote and loved the second, "I Pray for You." They weren't ready to record together quite yet, so the song became John's first single in a solo deal he'd gotten. His subsequent album was adored by the listeners who heard it-but not many people did, because the record label dropped him via e-mail before they actually put the thing out.
John and Big Kenny became friends and writing partners, and they kept jamming at each other's shows and clambering onstage with singer-songwriter pals like James Otto and Jon Nicholson. The casual sessions soon turned into a weekly Tuesday night gig at a small Nashville establishment called the Pub of Love. "We wanted to do it on the worst night of the week in the weirdest place in town," says John. "So that if anybody showed up, they'd be there because they wanted to hear music, not because they wanted to schmooze."
The sessions were dubbed the Muzik Mafia, and they grew to involve far more than just John, Big Kenny and their immediate circle of friends. "It was every style of music," says John. "We've had everyone come in from Randy Scruggs to Saliva. We had fiddle players, jugglers, guys blowing fire out of their mouths."
"It was a celebration," adds Big Kenny. "We never took money out of it, never charged anybody to come-and anybody who had some kind of performance, we'd let 'em get up there."
Gradually, the Muzik Mafia turned into one of the most exciting scenes in Nashville-though at first, John and Kenny resisted fans and friends who were convinced that Big & Rich, as everybody knew them, should try to land a record deal. "When anybody would mention, 'Oh, you and Big Kenny ought to get together and make a record,' I'd think, are you out of your mind?" laughs John. "Record companies didn't even get me-do you think they're going to get Big Kenny, lead singer of luvjOi, Mr. Universal Minister of Love, psychedelic rock 'n' roll man?"
Gradually, though, their attitudes changed. "As the Mafia kept going," says Big Kenny, "we watched it go from twenty people to three or four hundred people, slamming in the joint. And that kind of made us think, Hell, people love what we do, why worry about what anybody will accept? If I'm good by myself and youre good by yourself, and we come together, we can be even better and more insane."
"And if we do it that way and get our legs cut out from under us," adds John, "at least we're having a party."
The Muzik Mafia also helped get Big & Rich signed to Warner Bros. Nashville. Paul Worley, the company's new chief creative officer, already knew the pair's songs. Worley had produced the Martina album with Martina McBride; it included "She's a Butterfly," which John and Kenny had written after meeting a teenage girl who was suffering from brain cancer at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. Worley's daughter was also a regular at the Muzik Mafia shows, and at her urging he met them in his new office.
"We thought we had a meeting with him to pitch songs for Martina," says Kenny. "After we did a few of those songs, he said, 'I understand you have this Muzik Mafia thing going, this Big & Rich thing. Play me some of that.' I said, 'Dude, that ain't nothing you're going to want to cut on anybody.' But he said he wanted to hear it anyway. So we played him three songs, and he stood up, slammed his fist down on the table and said, 'By God, boys, I want to do this!'
"We looked at him and said, 'You want to do what?'" And he said, "I want Big & Rich to be the first act I sign to Warner Bros."
"I got more money than George Strait
I throw Benjies out the window all day
Just to see how far they fly, bye bye
I get more girls than the president
Mom and dad still pays the rent
And I throw parties all night long
But in my real world things don't always turn out so good
Like you wish they would."
Horse of a Different Color, the first-fruit of Worley's signing, starts with a sermon: "Brothers and sisters," declaims Big Kenny, "we are here for one reason and one reason alone: to share our love of music." It ends, an hour later, with a hymn of sorts: "Live This Life," which features a wailing background vocal by Martina McBride. In between are party songs and sober songs, drinking songs and thinking songs, songs about the legends of the West and songs about the casualties of our streets. Often as not, the songs fall into a few of those categories at the same time.
Musically, John and Big Kenny cover a similarly wide territory. They play country music, but country music that has room for echoes of everything from the Everly Brothers to Limp Bizkit to Queen, from honky tonk to rock 'n' rap. "Charlie Pride was the man in black," they sing in their anthem, "Rollin' (The Ballad of Big and Rich)." "Rock 'n' roll used to be about Johnny Cash." Then they turn the microphone over to Cowboy Troy, who raps the song home.
"We never went, 'Nah, this isn't a country song,' or 'This doesn't sound like something anybody would cover,'" says Kenny. "We were writing stuff that was out there. We've written bone country and psychedelic rock and everything in between. We just love music, and we like taking all aspects of it and seeing what comes out.
"What we're doing now is American music," he adds. "And the most American music format that I know of is country. That audience understands us. People that listen to country music don't just listen to country music. The kids who are coming up listen to Johnny Cash, then Kenny Chesney, then Ludacris or Outkast or Kid Rock. I mean, John's little brother wears a John Deere hat and an Eminem t-shirt."
"And Nashville's going to catch up to that," says John. "They want to."
Already, the portents are there: Music City is now a place where Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor can write the country single of the year, and Norah Jones can perform on the CMA Awards. This, it seems, is the boundary-obliterating terrain in which Big & Rich thrive.
"Life's as large as you want to make it," says John. To him and to his partner, life is indeed large, and big, and rich-musically, emotionally, philosophically, and every other way you might want to measure it.
--- from the official Big & Rich website