With “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” Big & Rich put some swagger back into country music and managed to polarize listeners who either loved them or hated them. And that’s just fine with John Rich, who says, “The main thing is, we want you to have an opinion one way or the other. The worse thing is to be liked to death. I’ve been liked to death before in music that I’ve made. I’d rather people just go, ‘I do not like Big & Rich’ or go, ‘It’s the greatest thing ever.’ And that’s pretty much what we get.”
“Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” broke the ice, but Big & Rich’s singles still haven’t broken through to the top of the country charts. Still, the duo’s debut album, Horse of a Different Color, is certified double-platinum for shipments of more than 2 million copies. With their new album, Comin’ to Your City, Rich and his partner, Big Kenny Alphin, have released another album filled with rap, rock, psychedelic sounds and some traditional-sounding country.
In the first of a two-part interview, Big & Rich talk to CMT.com about what happened once they finally found success after 72 weeks of MuzikMafia performances at Nashville’s Pub of Love nightclub. Running Friday (Nov. 25), the second part centers around Comin’ to Your City and the duo’s success as songwriters.
When you released Horse of a Different Color, what were your expectations of where you’d be 18 months later.
Rich: We had zero expectations.
Big Kenny: We thought we’d be homeless.
Rich: We thought we could be possibly either homeless or rich — one or the other. You just never know because the music was so different. The only thing that we knew for sure was that if it ever got the ears of the public — the right public — that it would work. Because we had done 72 Tuesday nights in a row at MuzikMafia, and the crowds were just becoming completely out of hand. And the music we were playing at Mafia, a lot of that’s what went on the Horse of a Different Color album.
Big Kenny: We knew that some people liked it. Our friends liked it. All we were doing was playing for the people right around us, so it gave us the confidence to at least believe that if we could get it to a bigger audience that there would be some people out there that liked it, too.
Was touring the key to getting the music to a larger audience?
Big Kenny: It was both. I mean, from the Mafia, we got a record deal. From the record deal, we were allowed to make a record, and then we went to radio with it. We immediately got on a tour, which was a huge thing for us.
Rich: Tim McGraw was a huge break for us. Put us in front of about 2 million people.
Big Kenny: And then Chevrolet heard it and they jumped on and wanted to use a song and then ESPN heard it and they jumped on and wanted to use a song for the World Series of Poker.
Rich: We’ve had to be real creative in how we’ve gotten our music to the people because we’re so radically different from what’s country radio that there’s a lot of country radio that still doesn’t know exactly how to fit us into their program yet. And we’re remaining patient, and we’re actually asking a lot of radio programmers when we meet them, “What is it about what we are doing that doesn’t necessarily jive with what you are doing?” And they’re like, “Nothing. You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing. It’s just a matter of time, a matter of people’s ears becoming accustomed to what you guys are doing.” And it’s starting to happen right now.
It’s one thing to listen to the CDs, but there’s something about seeing the live show. That’s when you really start to understand what’s going on.
Big Kenny: When you see it live, you see how we connect all that music, how we put all these songs together. Our album’s our journey that goes from very fun — sometimes outrageous — to very intense and serious, but that’s what life is. We write all of our own songs, and they’re a reflection of our lives. We go out and have as much fun as we can, and we try to wake up every day as happy as we can possibly be, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be something that comes along that doesn’t just smack you right down. Horrific things happen. People get hurt, people die, people get abused, but people also go out and have themselves a good time and party their butts off. They take a drink at the end of the day. They hang out with their friends. They do outrageous things.
Rich: I say we tried to weight it about 80 percent positive — just get out and have yourself a Big & Rich time — and 20 percent message-oriented. We want to tell people something that hopefully improves their lives to a certain degree or just impart a little bit of wisdom to them about something we’ve learned through our experience.
Playing live in Nashville was a big advantage. Most new acts are a little unsure of themselves when they first start playing arenas and amphitheaters, but that was never your problem.
Rich: Well, the great thing is that to become member of the MuzikMafia, you have to be unique in your musical approach. There’s only one Gretchen Wilson. There’s only one Cowboy Troy. There’s only one Big & Rich. There’s only one everybody I can name in the Mafia. The one thing that all of us being oddballs, freaks — however you want to put it — in the same room together, we all realize that about each other and everybody’s supporting each other. If you were out there by yourself, you’d get your brains beat out, like I’ve had happen and like Kenny’s had happen. But once everybody joins forces, it becomes harder and harder to be defeated.
Your friends won’t allow you to be defeated. If they know that you just got the hell stomped out of you at a meeting, you know that on Tuesday, you’re gonna show up and be able to jam with [them] and feel better again. They’re gonna go. “That’s all right, man. We’ll get another meeting. I just met this guy next week. You’ll talk to him. We’ll hook it up, it’s OK.” And you’re like, “Cool, man,” and you’re back on the money.
Big Kenny: You know what? Ultimately I think that’s what makes this town so cool. Nashville is, to us, Music City USA. There’s all kinds of music being made in this town, and we see the same thing happening over and over again all over the place right now. People just come here because they have a common love of music. They have a common goal, they have a common desire. They want to try to get their songs heard, they want to try to sing, they want to try whatever. When you do it together, it’s just so much more fun. It makes it easier when you’ve got that support.
Rich: It’s like the difference in running track or being on a football team. I’ve done both. Running track, you win or lose and you’re by yourself, no matter what. When you’re on a football team and you win or lose, it’s a lot more dynamic. It’s good to be able to high-five and spray the champagne on everybody else.
Some people want to portray what you do as flipping the bird at Nashville, but you’ve said that’s not the case at all.
Rich: MuzikMafia is pro-establishment. We understand that there has to be an establishment and an industry to get our music to the masses. It’s gotta be there. There’s a few things about it we don’t like. The main thing is that.
Rich and Big Kenny (In unison) : There should be no bureaucracy in creativity!
Rich: If there was ever a theme to mine and Kenny’s business approach in music, it’s that.
Big Kenny: There should be no bureaucracy in creativity. The people know when it’s real and when it’s not, and if you try to sterilize something so much, the fans know it. So you’ve got to put out art that’s artists being true to themselves and making whatever kind of music floats their boat. Just being completely honest in their creativity — that’s ultimately what works.
Rich: And that’s the only part about the business that we wanted to try to override. And we’ve been able to do that because Kenny and I have yet to have a Top 5 single at radio. Which, you know, we’ve scanned 2.5 million records and selling more, and our shows are getting bigger.
Big Kenny: Headlining our own tour next summer.
Rich: We’re having success in a non-conventional way because we stayed true to what we wanted to do. I’ve even had other artists come up to me, and I know it’s happened to Kenny, as well, and they’ve said, “If you guys had not broken, I would not have a record deal right now.” I mean, that is bigger than your music or anything we do. That effect is what we are looking for. That’s the part of the business we didn’t like. So if we’re actually changing a little bit of that, we’re succeeding.