Was it all their fault? It's been 10 years since Big & Rich injected a modern twist on the country sound on to the charts. The monster hit from their debut record, "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)", never did reach number 1, but it sure seemed inescapable in 2004. Since then all of the duo's antics that seemed daring then -- from hip hop experimentation to raucous rock shows celebrating a never ending party ethic - these things don't just feel like the fringes of country music any more so much as the current face of country music.
An argument can be made that a backlash has already begun, and it looks like Big Kenny and John Rich themselves may want in. On this, their first recording for their own label, they largely abandon the bro country mystique for power ballads about love. Have they gone soft? Signs point to yes. The single "Look at You" is a good example of the sound, compressing the electric guitar crunch in between the heartfelt lyrical lines. Those power chords are lifted straight from "I Hope You Dance," but they don't mine anywhere near as much depth. "Lovin' Lately" aims for a heart-wrencher, too, with the help of Tim McGraw. But it's odd to put in a guest backup vocalist when you've already got the harmonies of two lead singers - McGraw's lost in the mix, and without a call sheet, you wouldn't know he provided his services.
By the end, you'll be a little sick of B&R's swooning, either of the girl they have or the one they don't. Too many of these songs could be sung (better) by artists that frequent this territory, say Lee Brice or Hunter Hayes. The best tracks aren't quite so lyrically on the nose, such as the breezy "Rollin' Along" or "That Kind of Town," which successfully deconstructs the sheltered limitations of the map-dot lifestyle. "I Came to Git Down" is the sole party-boy track, thrown at the close lest the core fans think they've completely strayed. Call it a bid for maturity or a new audience, but if Big and Rich keep with this style before long they'll be neither.