Kenny and John make it big, strike it rich

Robert Loy, September 2004

Music is probably the most promiscuous of all the art forms, with all of the various branches of the harmonics family tree occasionally reinvigorating their bloodlines by accepting a graft or two from another branch. It's been going on for as long as there's been music, but that doesn't stop the purists from raising a hue and cry every time it happens anew.

History is now repeating itself again with Big & Rich's first album "Horse of a Different Color" taking over the charts, and its incorporation of blues, gospel and rap ("Country music without prejudice" as Big & Rich call it) sending the self-appointed guardians of musical integrity into a tizzy.

Which surprises Big Kenny, one half of the groundbreaking duo, since he has always considered himself something of a purist.

"When it comes to music, I've always been a purist. I just love to hear real music. You can just feel when someone's speaking to you. I think that's what's always caught me about music, no matter what genre it came from, it's just about was it great or not.

"I think you take in everything you've ever listened to, and if you're really being true to your creativity, you just create, and you don't think bureaucratically about it. You don't think does this fit here, does it fit there. No, you just say 'Oh, wow, this is a cool song that just popped into my head. This is a gift that has been bestowed upon me. Here is something I need to say, so I'm just going to say it.' Then if someone wants to listen to it, that's great."

And evidently people do want to listen to it. Their first single "Wild West Show" didn't make much of an impression, but their second one "Save a Horse, (Ride a Cowboy)," can fairly be termed a phenomenon. At press time, it was in the top 10 on the record charts and moving up fast and was being used as the theme to the World Series of Poker on ESPN, while the video for that tune was number one at CMT and VHI Country.

This despite the fact that the song has been criticized for its spoken word centerpiece and some television stations are reluctant to air the video, since they don't know what to make of the midgets and the man making out with a mannequin, not to mention with the dancing women in business suits and stockings but apparently no underwear.

Did Big Kenny foresee any of the potential controversy?

"Nah, we never thought it was controversial. We're just out there having fun, and these are our friends, so to us this is just the way we live. I guess if you live in the land of Oz than Oz wouldn't seem that crazy to you."

Neither one of these guys was actually born in the Emerald City. Big Kenny, a former carpenter, hails from Culpeper Va. and his partner John Rich, late of the band Lonestar, is from Texas. And though they seem to have sprung up overnight, they've actually been writing and playing together since 1998.

"Lonestar had a meeting, and they decided that where John wanted to go and where the rest of the band wanted to go was too different. He was out of the band in January, and in February, he met me. We weren't sure about each other when we first met each cuz we both can come across a little strong. We're both front men. But we just decided to see if we could write a song. We wrote a song, we liked it, we said, 'wow, we ought to try this again sometime.' We wrote again the next day. And now we've written over 300 songs together."

In the early days of their friendship, Kenny helped write country songs for Rich's solo career, and Rich co-wrote rock songs for Kenny's raucous rock band luvjOi.

Eventually, they started jamming together every Tuesday night at a Nashville spot called the Pub of Love. Their no-holds barred style of music attracted an eclectic bunch of acolytes (including Mercury artist James Otto and Gretchen Wilson) who soon became known as the Muzik Mafia. The Muzik Mafia grew to include hundreds of musicians, and every style was welcome, from hardcore country to heavy metal.

Big & Rich drew the attention of Paul Worley at Warner Brothers, who signed them to a contract. And it wasn't long after that another unofficial member of the Muzik Mafia, Martina McBride, fell in love with their music and was instrumental in getting them out on the road with the hottest artist in country today.

"Martina and her husband John became avid fans of ours," Kenny explains. "She had cut a song we wrote called "She's a Butterfly" that John and I wrote about a little girl we knew who had brain cancer. So the next thing you know they're having dinner with the McGraws, and they drag Tim out to John's truck and played them the CD. Tim had never heard of us, but he listened to two songs and calls his manager and says 'I know who I want to go on tour with me.'"

And that tour has been one of the hot tickets of this concert season. Even though it's different than your usual country and western show. You see, having a platinum album and tons of adoring fans is not enough for these two guys. They want to change country music as we know it.

"Last night, we were performing in San Francisco," Big Kenny says, "and we were in the middle of "Save a Horse" and all of a sudden we started chanting 'It's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes'."

"Then we stopped, and the audience singing the words to that song was so loud, I could not believe it. And I go, 'Y'all aren't supposed to know that. What's going on here?' So then we went into Ludacris 'I want to lick lick lick you from your head down to your toes.' Turned the microphone around again - they knew every word of it. What's happening out here is that people are no longer listening to just one format."

"I have a buddy in the car business, and when people trade in their cars, he checks the radio station presets. He says 90 per cent of the people have a country station, a classic rock station, a rap station, a top 40 station. They're just constantly flipping back and forth trying to find good music. Everybody's just looking for a good song, man."

Maybe Big Kenny understands these better than most because he grew up looking for good songs, and when he found one, he was too busy listening and enjoying to worry about where he should mentally file it.

"I was born on a cattle farm in Virginia that's been in my family forever. We were at the end of a long dirt road. And there wasn't much music. A little bit on TV. I could remember sitting on my father's lap watching the Lawrence Welk Show with him. There was never a stereo in the house - just a little radio on the table, and at lunchtime, Dad would listen to Paul Harvey and the livestock report - and there was a radio in the car but the only station we got back then was WCVA AM1490, and they played whatever ' was popular at the time. You could hear "Strawberry Fields" and then hear "Strawberry Wine" or George Jones. Then when my brothers got cars, they started exposing me to music. And then being in construction, the shop foreman always had the radio on country so I got exposed to all of it in these crazy different ways.

"That's why we were so lucky to find somebody like Paul Worley at Warner Brothers who said 'Boys, I don't want you to do anything different than what you're already doing. Just concentrate on making a great record, and let me worry about what to do with it after that. Cuz he just believed that if we got in front of people and started playing, they'd get it cuz that's the way we'd earned our stripes already. We were both doing our own thing, playing different kinds of music, but we liked all of it. I always said, "Okay, I finished making this rock record, now I want to make a country record or a swing record - I'm gonna call it 'Let's Be Frank' - or blues or opera."

This all-encompassing approach to music makes some people nervous, but Big Kenny says there's nothing to be afraid of.

"It all comes back to country music. Always. And the reason is because, by God, when music started in this country, it started with banjos and fiddles. Country music was the Genesis of everything."

Wherever one stands on the issue of rap in country music, it's obvious that in order for country music to thrive in the decades to come, it has to hook a new generation of fans.

"Kids come up to us all the time and say, 'Ya know, I hate country music, but I love y'all's record.' That's great, we don't care how they get it, just so they get it. Music has became fractionalized and compartmentalized, and what we're doing is getting rid of some of that."

And Big Kenny is not bothered by Big & Rich's detractors.

"You can either fight the darkness or you can be the light, and I choose to be the light," he explains. "You know I could sit here and I could talk about the typical stuff, damning this, damning that, saying this ain't right - you know what, who cares? I'm not going to argue with somebody saying that kind of stuff. I'm just going to make music and tell people to love each other. Everywhere I go. That's what it's all about...People should grasp the best in life and shoot for that and let go of this bullshit and the prejudices that we've been brought up around. And especially let go of prejudices when it come to music. People need to realize that we have this great gift out here called music. And I'd rather spend my time listening to what I love than just complaining about anything."

"Be the light. Just shine. Whatever your shining star might be, I'm sure that if you just keep stepping toward it, one foot in front the other every day, sooner or later you're going to get there."

It is profundities like that have given Big Kenny the nickname "Nashville's Universal Minister of Love," but not for long.

"I'm changing it to "Nashville's Universal Ambassador of Love." I think the word ambassador is more all-inviting. I don't want people to feel like I'm pontificating. I'm not doing that. I want to show them the light, the joy and the love of the music that I've found. So I want to be an ambassador. I want to carry the flag for love."

In his other hand is the flag for country music without prejudice, and if anybody can make us all stand up and salute, it's John Rich and Big Kenny.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •