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Members include Kenny Alphin (born in Culpeper, VA) and John Rich (born in Armarillo, TX, c. 1974). Addresses: Record company--Raybaw Records, Warner/Reprise Nashville, 20 Music Square E., Nashville, TN 37203. Website--Big & Rich Official Website: http://www.bigandrich.com.
Rule-breakers in an era of conformity in Nashville, the duo of Big & Rich was among the hottest acts in country music in 2004 and 2005. "Big Kenny" Alphin and John Rich crossed genre barriers fearlessly, incorporating rock and hip-hop sounds into a country framework on their debut album, Horse of a Different Color. What made Big & Rich more than a novelty act and set them on a path to becoming a major force in the music industry was the fact that they tended to think beyond their own careers. Before they rose to stardom, they became part of a unique collective of artists known as the Muzik Mafia, and they stuck with their friends as their influence grew, and tried to create a new and innovative movement in country music.
Alphin and Rich began working together in 1998, after each had suffered a series of frustrating creative setbacks. "Dude, you couldn't get any lower than we were," Alphin told Michael McCall of the Los Angeles Times, reflecting on the duo's years of career dead ends. Both grew up in religious backgrounds; that of Alphin, who was born in Culpeper, Virginia, around 1964, was reflected in the "Universal Minister of Love" persona he adopted in Big & Rich concerts. Horse of a Different Color opened with a quasi-sermon from Big Kenny: "Brothers and sisters, we are here for one reason and one reason alone: to share our love of music."
Rich had loved music for his entire adult life. Born around 1974, he was a native of Amarillo, Texas. His father was a preacher who carried a cross around the parking lot of the Amarillo Civic Center when the outrageous metal band Motley Crue performed there in the mid-1980s. "Since I was probably 20 years old, the only thing that consumed my thought process was music," he told Billboard's Phyllis Stark. During the 1990s Alphin worked as a house builder, but his business went bankrupt. He was interested in rock before he adopted country music as a full-time career in his thirties. Alphin and Rich made their way to Nashville to try making a living there, in competition with the hundreds of other aspiring musicians who come to Music City every year.
Rich was especially prolific, estimating his total output during the 1990s and early 2000s at close to 900 songs. He joined a rising band called Lonestar, but had the bad fortune to leave the group just before it hit stardom in the late 1990s. Creative differences were behind the split. "They want to write about their wives and kids," he told Sean Daly of the Washington Post. "We want to write about finding wives and having kids." At loose ends, Rich went, at a friend's recommendation, to hear Big Kenny perform at a Nashville bar in 1998.
Rich Hit by Stage Trinket
The partnership got off to an unpromising start when Rich was hit in the face by a piece of bubble gum that Alphin threw from the stage as he scattered goodies among the small crowd at the end of a concert. When a mutual friend suggested that they try writing songs together, they each broke appointments they had set up. "Finally, we said, 'This is ridiculous, let's do it one time and get it over with,'" Rich recalled to Daly. "So we wrote, it went really good, and so we decided 'Let's try another one.'" Their friend Cory Gierman, later a key Muzik Mafia figure, told Daly that Alphin and Rich at first "were like two bulldogs meeting each other."
At the time, both still nurtured hopes of individual solo careers. Alphin's pop release Big Kenny's Live a Little went nowhere after its release in 1999, and a new band he formed called Luvjoi made little impact. Rich was signed to RCA but was dropped, by fax, before his debut album, I Pray for You (whose title track was an early Big & Rich songwriting product), was even released. Neither artist fit the clean-cut, hearth-and-home image that was favored in mainstream country music around the century's turn. Alphin and Rich became discouraged about their prospects. "We used to sit around and talk about world domination," Gierman told McCall. "Of course, none of us had enough money to eat."
Finally, Big Kenny and Rich decided to embrace their outsider status rather than try to find a way around it. "Really, what happened was we decided to ignore the music industry and have some fun, because nothing was happening for us anyway," Rich told McCall. "Maybe it proves that the best way to succeed is to do what you love and forget everything else everyone tells you." Their decision took the form of the Muzik Mafia, a Tuesday-night concert series held in a questionable Nashville bar called The Pub of Love, beginning on October 23, 2001. They hit on the Mafia moniker because it described what they wanted to do: assemble a group of similarly minded musicians who would pool their interests and look out for one another. It also occurred to them that "Mafia" could serve as an acronym for "Musically Artistic Friends in Alliance."
Involved Gretchen Wilson in Shows
The Muzik Mafia performances began with just Big & Rich themselves, but they quickly augmented their act with other Nashville nonconformists, and in the process they showed that they had a good eye for raw talent. One performer who cut her teeth on the Muzik Mafia stage was Gretchen Wilson, a bartender still two years away from her 2004 breakthrough with the Here for the Party album, which Rich co-produced. Another was Cowboy Troy, a six-foot five-inch African-American human resources worker from Dallas who tried to combine hip-hop and country music. Rich had met him in a Texas bar in 1992 and encouraged him to move to Nashville. A central theme of the Big & Rich organization as it developed would be summed up with the motto "Country Music Without Prejudice."
The Muzik Mafia shows became wilder and wilder, moving from place to place and attracting crowds with their anything-goes atmosphere. A dancing dwarf named Two-Foot Fred (actually three-foot two inches tall) might appear on a stage next to an artist in the process of creating an original painting. "It was every style of music," Rich told the Country Music Television website. "We've had everyone come on from Randy Scruggs to Saliva. We had fiddle players, jugglers, guys blowing fire out of their mouths." One Nashvillian who frequented the Muzik Mafia shows was the daughter of Warner Brothers' Nashville executive Paul Worley; she told her father about the creativity of the Muzik Mafia artists, and Worley brought Big & Rich into his office. The duo thought that they were being summoned merely to pitch songs to country star Martina McBride, who sometimes graced Muzik Mafia stages, but they left with a Warner Brothers contract of their own.
Big & Rich had a talent for reshaping bits of songs from various genres into country compositions; Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide noted the strong resemblance between their debut single, the downbeat "Wild West Show," and rock band Nirvana's "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle." It was a fresh sound in a country scene dominated by romantic formulas, and Big & Rich quickly gained new fans when they went on tour as an opening act for country superstar Tim McGraw. They were accompanied by Cowboy Troy, who delivered rap interludes (in English and Spanish) during their concerts after Big & Rich exhorted the crowd to egg him on with chants of "Go, Cowboy, go!"
Ended Concerts with Jam Sessions
Horse of a Different Color was released in the summer of 2004, and hit the top of Billboard's country album sales chart even without benefit of a runaway hit single. Several songs from the album became well known, including the barroom anthem "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," and the next time Big & Rich went on tour, in late 2004, it was as headliners of the Chevrolet-sponsored American Revolution Tour, which included Gretchen Wilson and Cowboy Troy.
True to the Muzik Mafia concept, Big & Rich began to bring their associates along for a ride on the path to success. They formed a Warner Brothers subsidiary of their own called Raybaw, an acronym for "Red and Yellow, Black and White" (a phrase taken from the gospel song "Jesus Loves the Little Children"). The label's first release was Cowboy Troy's Loco Motive, which sold more than 50,000 copies in its first week of availability. Big & Rich readied albums by other Muzik Mafia figures, including vocalists James Otto and Jon Nicholson, for release in 2005.
Speaking with Curtis Ross of the Tampa Tribune, Alphin summed up his hopes for the new label by saying, "We can put out who we think is great." Rich, noted Stark, "has quietly become Nashville's new 'it' producer and one of its most sought-after songwriters." He told Stark, "I want to ... really exhaust my potential," and added, "I'm really testing myself to see what exactly am I capable of." Alphin was as busy as Rich, and country music's most innovative duo, suddenly in charge of a number of hot properties, looked forward to its own sophomore release.
by James M. Manheim
Big & Rich's Career
Group formed in Nashville; TN, 2001; organized Muzik Mafia musician and concert collective; toured as opening act for Tim McGraw; released debut album, Horse of a Different Color, 2004; headlined American Revolution tour, 2004; formed Raybaw label, released albums by Cowboy Troy and other Muzik Mafia albums, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Horse of a Different Color Warner Nashville, 2004.
- Billboard, July 9, 2005, p. 60.
- Cleveland Scene, August 10, 2005.
- Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2005, p. E43.
- New York Times, November 8, 2004, p. E1.
- People, July 12, 2004, p. 42.
- Tampa Tribune, January 28, 2005, p. 22.
- Washington Post, October 3, 2004, p. N1.
- "Big & Rich," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 2, 2005).
- "Big & Rich," Country Music Television, http://www.cmt.com/artists/az/big_rich/bio.jhtml (September 2, 2005).
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