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They are America's Technicolor cowboys, brothers-in-arms in service to the creed that great music has no boundaries. Individually, John Rich and Big Kenny Alphin are first-rate musicians, songwriters, producers and entertainers. Together, they are one of the most truly original musical forces ever unleashed on a welcoming world.
With the release of Hillbilly Jedi, they reassert their position as modern music's best party soundtrack with songs like "Party Like Cowboyz," "Rock the Boat" and "Get Your Game On." As might be expected, though, given the wide sweep of their talent, they do a great deal more. Their music has always displayed great range, with well-crafted songs about love, loss, patriotism and social issues all interspersed among those party anthems, and that is especially true here. Hillbilly Jedi covers a great deal of stylistic ground, from "Last Words," which John describes as "Roy Orbison meets Queen," and "Lay It All On Me," a meditation on happiness and love set amid a hauntingly beautiful track complete with choir, to "'Cause I Play Guitar," a bluesy bauble celebrating the fruits of the rocking life.
And if there is any doubt about the anticipation level for this, their first album since 2007's Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace, it can be put to rest by the fact that Hillbilly Jedi's lead single, "That's Why I Pray," became their fastest riser since "Lost In This Moment," which climbed to the top of the charts five years earlier. A topical spiritual anthem, "That's Why I Pray" is the cry of a battered but hopeful soul in a world whose turmoil is splattered 24/7 across the world's airwaves, brought to life by two artists adept at capturing real emotional resonance. It is also a song that displays the pair's willingness to reach beyond their own formidable songwriting talents as they seek to make the best possible music.
"When you've got two songwriters," says John, "some people wonder why we'd record something we didn't write, but we are in a position to take the greatest music we can get our hands on, and if something brilliant and poignant like 'That's Why I Pray' comes along, we don't care who wrote it."
"I was surprised at how well it did right off the bat," adds Kenny, "but I felt very positive that it was the kind of song that would make a difference."
Big & Rich have, of course, made a difference, exploding into the public consciousness in 2003 as that rarest of breeds—true country music game changers. With 2004’s triple-platinum Horse of a Different Color, they were able to tap into the best strands of a wide spectrum of popular music, filter them through their pens and voices and produce a sound that is instantly recognizable, if not classifiable.
"You still can't really define what that sound is," says John. "Even we can't."
It begins, of course, with that one-of-a-kind vocal blend, as unique and compelling as any in the history of the popular airwaves.
"I listen to a lot of music and I haven't heard any two voices go together like this," says Kenny. "John and I can match each other anywhere. He can sing anything and I can make an entirely different other melody around it, and vice versa."
If radio didn't fully know what to make of them at first, fans of every musical stripe did. They packed arenas with a flying circus of sight sound and spectacle, a touring renaissance fair of the mind, complete with raised glasses and danceable beats. And now, Hillbilly Jedi harkens back to the strength and magic of that debut.
"It has very much that same feeling as our first album," says Kenny, "in that we just wanted to go wherever it felt good. That's the most freeing way to make music and truly the music ought to come out of any artist straight from their heart and creative soul. And we had a blast making it."
The title "Hillbilly Jedi" comes from a line in the album's opener, "Born Again."
“It came out in a writing session we were doing with Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi,” says Kenny. “We got to that line and Bon Jovi stops and says, ‘Hillbilly Jedi?' That’s it! I’d buy that shirt.’ We were like, ‘Hey, that’s about as descriptive as you can get of what we are.’”
"'Born Again' is slammin', and it kind of explains where we've been and what we're doing—'making little babies and writing big songs,' that's the first line of the song," says John. "Then it goes into the chorus, with Richie Sambora shredding the guitar, and the big harmonies with Bon Jovi and Big & Rich together. It's a really cool record."
Also contributing to the proceedings is Cowboy Troy, whose rapping adds to the energy and attitude of "Rock the Boat" and "Get Your Game On." At the production helm is Dann Huff, whose credits as a musician include Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and as a producer range from Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts to Megadeth.
"We thought it was important to put a new sonic feel to what we do," says John, "but we wanted somebody with a fresh perspective on what we do. We didn't want to concentrate on the technicalities, but on singing the fire out of everything we could, really making a statement with every syllable coming out of our mouths and letting Dann handle the sonic end. For us, it was perfect."
"He's an amazing talent," adds Kenny, "and he just wanted us to do our thing. He pushed the edge as much as we do, and it was a great experience."
As Hillbilly Jedi finds the duo on top of their studio game, their live performances find them at their hell-raising best, with crowds as intense and appreciative as any they've ever faced.
"It seems like when you put John and Kenny together and we become Big & Rich, it's like Clark Kent walking into the phone booth and coming out a superman," says John. "We can't explain it. It's like a chemical reaction between Kenny and me on stage, something you can feel there—Hillbilly Jedi, the force is with you. It's funny to think about but it's really true, we walk out on stage and start laying into this thing, the energy goes back and forth between us and the crowd and it's palpable."
They are, in addition to everything musical, noted philanthropists and good-will ambassadors. Both remain committed and enthusiastic livers of life and givers of time, talent and fortune to great causes. Kenny has become a world traveler, fighting poverty and supporting education through agencies including the United Nations Foundation and the Red Cross from North America to Africa. John takes part in any number of charitable outreaches, and his win on The Celebrity Apprentice brought well over a million dollars to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Those things go to the core of two men whose music and worldviews intersect seamlessly.
"We continue to try to inspire," says Kenny. "We just try to be ourselves in a world that sometimes insinuates you shouldn't go outside the boundaries. And now the fact that we've got the family thing going on has made a tremendous difference for both of us, but we're still the same guys. I think life in general moves you forward in a positive way if you let it. Our relationship has grown more positively here than you could ever imagine. I think we just continue to grow, to respect each other more and more and respect the kind of ability we have when we're singing together."
"We both have a lot of things that we do creatively," adds John, "but there's been something magical about this since the beginning. As good as we are at what we do separately, neither of us is as good as Big & Rich are together. The Big & Rich thing is like a new color in the crayon box."
And it's all on display in Hillbilly Jedi for the world to see.
"No question in my mind," says Kenny, "that we have put forward as high quality music as we can do. And we believe we just keep getting better."