Big & Rich’s new album, Comin’ to Your City, features the goodtime party music that’s made them famous, but it also continues to reveal a more serious and substantive side. Country Music Hall of Fame member Kris Kristofferson narrates the introduction to “8th of November,” a true story about Vietnam veteran Niles Harris and his experience on Nov. 8, 1965 when the 173rd Airborne Brigade was ambushed by more than 1,200 Vietcong soldiers. Big Kenny explains how their encounter with Harris in South Dakota led to his trademark top hat he now wears and how his experiences in Deadwood led him to write the song, “Six Foot Town.”
Big & Rich have supplemented their income nicely by co-writing Gretchen Wilson’s hit, “Here for the Party.” John Rich’s credits include Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” and “When I Think About Cheatin’,” Faith Hill’s “Mississippi Girl” and Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown,” among others. Big Kenny Alphin shared songwriter of the year honors recently at the BMI Country Awards, and Rich was named ASCAP’s country songwriter-artist of the year.
In the last installment of a two-part interview, Big & Rich talk about the new album and the need to keep creating new music for themselves and others.
In choosing songs for your albums, do you tend to gravitate toward the ones you think will work well in concerts?
Rich: We tend to gravitate toward the ones that turn me and Kenny on the most. There’s a song on this new album called “Soul Shaker,” and in my opinion, it is the hardest rock and country recording of all time. It’s like “Born to Boogie” on 20. We love playing it. It rocks your speakers so hard that we just had to cut it.
Big Kenny: There’s a song on there called “Never Mind Me” that’s just got this incredible soul to it.
Rich: It’s like Motown.
Big Kenny: There’s a song “Blow My Mind” that used to be an anthem during Mafia. We’ve been playing that song for five years.
In thinking about that song, it’s clear that no one is making country music like that, but nobody’s really making rock music like that anymore, either.
Big Kenny: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely got rock influence in it, and then it’s got John and me doing bluegrass harmonies together. And that’s what’s just so great about music. It’s constantly evolving. … It just turns your ears on. If it turns your ears on, it’s gonna turn somebody else’s on, too.
Rich: Why debate it? Why dissect it? A lot of people try to dissect Big & Rich’s music, and there’s no point. Either you like it or you don’t. 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. It’s one way or another with us which I think is why we’re doing well.
Big Kenny: Every message board I’ve looked at to date seems like a boxing match.
Rich: Yeah, it’s one guy going, “Big & Rich is a slap in the face to country music.” And then you’ll see two more replies that say, “Big & Rich is the greatest thing that ever happened!”
There’s a mention in the song, “Filthy Rich,” about your grandmother losing her job. Is that a true story?
Rich: Yeah. My grandmother worked at a shirt factory in Huntington, Tenn., for about 18 years. And some big parent company bought it and shut it down, and she lost all her retirement that she had had them take out every week. It was, like, $45 a week or something like that for years and years and years. And the way this thing went down, everybody lost everything, and then you see Enron and all these other companies that are just screwing blue collar America.
If you couldn’t get the voice of God or Johnny Cash to do the spoken introduction to “8th of November,” then I guess Kris Kristofferson is about the closest you could get.
Rich: Kenny and I have been asked in interviews if there’s anybody out there you we’d want to collaborate with. And without even consulting each other, we both said Kris Kristofferson. He is, first of all not, around here [Nashville] much … and he’s a Rhodes scholar. And he’s just a great American, on top of his music.
Big Kenny: He wrote songs that were recorded country, he wrote songs that were recorded rock ‘n’ roll — the same songs. I was in California, and there was a young girl out there who was signed to the Warner label who’s recording his song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” over again but doing it in her kind-of-a-swing style. He just writes classics.
Rich: One other reason why Kris Kristofferson was the absolute perfect person to introduce “8th of November” is because he was a G.I. chopper pilot in Vietnam. He heard this story about the “8th of November” and met Niles Harris, who the song is written about. He and Niles bonded big time. Kris said, “I’m in. I’ll go anywhere you want me to go. I’m in on this deal. If it becomes a movie, I’m in.” He said this kind of thing is what country music is to him. He said, “This is what it used to be about.” … He’s the kind of guy we aspire to be. You want to become that great, and you know it takes your life to become that great, so there can be no better endorsement of the second Big & Rich album than to have Kris Kristofferson on there.
How did you and Niles meet?
Big Kenny: We met Niles there in Deadwood, S.D., at a bar we were in. Niles was the bartender. He was wearing that top hat. And I went up to him one night after a show, and I said, “Dang, man, that’s an awesome hat. Where’d you get it?” … So we got to talking, and the next day, he takes us out in a bunch of gold mines, and we go way back up in the Black Hills. Then that night, we’re playing again, and he comes walking in the side door, just stumbling. You could tell he’d had a couple. He walks up to the stage and takes his hat off and hands it to me, so I wear it for the rest of the show. We finish the show up, and I said “Hey, man, thanks for letting me wear your hat. That’s awesome!” And he said, “Aw, keep it.” And he wouldn’t take it back. So I wore it. We were hitting the casinos all that night in Deadwood, and I’m wearing this hat everywhere for the next two days. The feathers are so tall, I kept hitting my head on all the door frames. I was having to duck everywhere. … The next morning, I woke up. I’d been awake all night long with this idea running through my head: “Man, it’s hard to get around in a 6-foot town/When you’re 10-feet tall/Everything’s so small/Always bumping my head/I’m way too tall for the bed.” The only thing he had in his apartment were these little single beds, and my feet are sticking off the end of it. And, boom, you know, every song comes from something like that.
Now that you’ve become so successful, are there people trying to latch on to what you are doing and trying to gain access into the MuzikMafia?
Rich: We have to be constantly aware as to people’s intentions, but we want everybody to come see the show.
Big Kenny: I mean, I don’t, really. I don’t see that many of what you just mentioned. You know, there’s such a filtering system around us.
Rich: I’ve probably seen it more than you because of that album and stuff I’ve been working on. People been coming at me with stuff.
Big Kenny: But the filtering system is good enough. … You can see what’s real and what’s not. But the main thing is we want to encourage everybody. If it’s not real right now, maybe 10 years from now it will be. Just stay at it.
With the success, what have you all learned about yourself over the past year or so?
Big Kenny: I thought I’ve worked hard before, but I’ve realized I can work harder.
Rich: If you go from the end of this November back 12 months, I’ve worked 351 days at one level or another — either on the road or on albums or writing or whatever. It’s definitely been the most output I’ve ever had in a single year. But I feel pretty good, actually. Kenny and I have made a lot of great music. Kenny’s making great music with other people, other artists. I’m making music with other artists. It is just musical absolute atomic explosion going on right now with us. We’re finally getting to the point where, if we have a good idea, we have the resources and the connections and, now, the credibility to make it happen. If we want to go to Vietnam, and the label goes, “You’ve already spent your budget,” we go, “OK, we’ll just pull it out of our touring account.” We can do that now. We can go to Vietnam and do something that’s important to us. We’re reaching a level now that our hands are becoming untied.
Big Kenny: For the past year, we’ve been filming a documentary about the song, “8th of November,” and we’re trying to tell the complete story as thoroughly as we can. We were in Vietnam for five days and had our guys over there for the past several months locating the exact battlefield.
Rich: They found it.
Big Kenny: They found the colonel from the commander of the opposing army. We interviewed him. We interviewed one of the Vietcong liaisons, the guys who were feeding the information back and forth. We’ve learned so much. It’s been so eye-opening.
Rich: The only things that came back with Niles from Vietnam were the boots that they cut off him that day. They were soaked in blood and mud, and he kept them in his garage for 40 years. Niles took the boots back to Vietnam, back to the war zone. He went out there, found the exact spot where this battle went down and jumped down in a crater that was made by a bomb from a B-52 that probably hit that day in the battle. He crawled down inside there. Me and Kenny got on our hands and knees, dug a hole out and he buried those boots. We did a shot of Crown [Royal], dropped the glasses in and sang the song.
Big Kenny: Forty eight men lost their life that day — from age 17 to whatever.
Rich: It’s going to be the most important thing to date that me and Kenny have ever done.
Big Kenny: We’re walking along the edge of this lake which used to be a river, and you could see these holes everywhere — these big 40-foot wide, just round holes everywhere. And you’re going like, “This is just strange. I wonder if somebody around here has been digging holes. What’s up?” Then we get in there, and Niles picks out the spot where he wants to bury the boots. … I’m like, “So that’s what all those holes were.” I mean, talk about a freaky revelation. There you are, standing in this spot where he was 19 years old … and it was just hell. And I think, “If there’s anything we can do, at least, to let just regular people like us maybe just for one second feel a little bit of that emotion he deals with on a daily basis.
At the ASCAP party celebrating one of the songs you co-wrote, Faith Hill’s “Mississippi Girl,” you mentioned you had more than 800 of your original songs in an iPod.
Rich: I wrote my 900th song last month.
How many of these would you say are honestly viable to be recorded?
Rich: Are viable? Um, probably a couple of hundred of them. I’d say that pretty easily. In the last 12 months, 96 of them have been recorded, so I’m running out. I need to write some more songs. The ones that aren’t good, I don’t let anybody hear them, but I have written that many. People coming to town wanting to be a hit songwriter will ask, “How’d you do it?” … I wrote 900 songs. Average about four hours apiece. Let’s see, that’s about 3,600 hours of writing songs, and now I’m finally good enough where I can write a song.
Big Kenny: (laughs) Why does what he writes for everybody else take a lot longer than the ones he writes with me?
Rich: Well, when we write together it’s an hour.
Are people sifting through your song catalog to find a potential hit that somebody else overlooked?
Rich: Yeah, they’re going through it. I went through my own catalog and put about 100 songs on hold for me and Kenny and Gretchen and just people who are in our immediate world that I didn’t want going anywhere else. I said, “You can pitch but these, but those 100 or 120 titles, you can’t touch those.” Kenny’s in the same situation. He’s got so many songs, it’s unbelievable. He’s forgotten more songs than most people ever wrote. (laughs) Literally, because his memory’s terrible, which is why I’m here. Why write a bunch of songs, man? If you’re a songwriter, you’re a songwriter. You don’t do it to try to get a cut. You do it because that’s just what you do. And here’s another thing: I’m a little uncomfortable sometimes when people get this look of awe on their face here lately about songs that I’ve had recorded … just because I’ve been on a little bit of a roll. It’s been a bunch, but there’s a guy named Sonny Throckmorton who, in one year, had 190 cuts. That’s 190 in one year! And he was on a pace like for over a decade. … So if we keep up what we are doing right now for another 10 years, fine, then I’ll accept people being a little freaked out. I’ll be freaked out a little bit. But right now, we’re just getting on our first roll, and I think it’s just something you gotta stay at.
So there’s plenty of work to do.
Rich: Tons. I’m the hardest working guy you’ll ever run into.
Big Kenny: Oh God, there’s so much to create. And we’re not gonna have boundries. We’re working on everything we can work on, if we can dream it up.