FOXNews.com

Big & Rich Fitting Into Nashville Scene

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

By JOHN GEROME, Associated Press Writer

ADVERTISEMENT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 

Their first hit was a rap song. Their shows featured a dancing dwarf and a painter. Nashville's Music Row didn't quite know what to make of Big & Rich when they started getting attention _ more like demanding attention _ a few years ago. It does now.

As unlikely as it once seemed, the country duo has become, well, normal. Their songs are played on mainstream radio, they're nominated for industry awards, they've performed on the Grand Ole Opry.

Big & Rich released their third album, "Between Raising Hell & Amazing Grace," on Tuesday, and their latest single, "Lost in This Moment," is the fastest-rising and highest-charting song of their career.

But the duo has been an acquired taste for country radio.

"If you stay at it long enough, like anything else, eventually people go, 'OK, that's what it's all about.' It's not as alien as it once was," John Rich said.

An interview with Rich and "Big" Kenny Alphin is about what you'd expect if you've ever seen one of their shows. Rich comes across a little cocky, Alphin a little loopy. You get the impression they've heard each other's answers a hundred times before. As one talks, the other gets restless and wanders off.

Both say they never set out to be iconoclasts. They wanted mainstream success, wanted to be accepted by the Nashville establishment. Rich is even a member of the Country Music Association's board.

"We respect everything that has come before us. Some of the greatest talents of the world came out of this town," Alphin said. "But we don't have to repeat them. What we've done is come up with a style of our own."

Alphin, 43, was a rock singer and Rich, 33, a former member of the country group Lonestar when they began singing together in 2001.

Their freewheeling shows grew from a gathering of artists called the Muzik Mafia (Musically Artistic Friends In Alliance). The weekly jam sessions resembled a circus sideshow with a painter, juggler, fire eater, poet, dancing dwarf, rapping black cowboy named Troy Coleman and the then-unknown singer Gretchen Wilson.

The buzz grew, the industry noticed, and Big & Rich, Wilson and Coleman (Cowboy Troy) all landed major label record deals.

The pair's 2004 debut album "Horse of a Different Color" sold more than 2 million without a lot of airplay. The breakthrough hit, "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy," was a risque rapper that had traditionalists fretting over the direction of country music.

"The music was fresh enough where the times had come to the music a little bit," said Alphin, who performs in a top hat and plays a guitar with "Love Everybody" printed in bold white letters on back.

Their second album, 2005's "Comin' to Your City," also topped a million in sales without a Top 10 single. The somber "8th of November" paid homage to Vietnam veterans without sounding jingoistic or maudlin. The goofy title track ("If ya wanna little bang in your ying yang come along") became the theme song to ESPN's "College Game Day."

"I think word of mouth has been huge for us," Rich said. "When we came out we were such a visual act, everyone on TV wanted us to do everything. We had all kinds of offers we wouldn't normally get because of the bombastic nature of the music."

In some ways, Rich said the lack of radio airplay helped sales because "people couldn't hear it all the time. They had to go out and buy it if they wanted to hear it."

As Big & Rich took off, Rich become a sought-after writer and producer on his own, penning Faith Hill's No. 1 "Mississippi Girl" and shepherding albums by Wilson, Coleman, Anderson and Jewel. Alphin has hit big, too, writing McGraw's recent No. 1 "Last Dollar (Fly Away)."

Warner Brothers Nashville saw enough potential in the Mafia that it created an affiliate called RAYBAW (Red and Yellow, Black and White) Records that's part-owned by Big & Rich.

The Mafia remains fertile ground for new music. Cowboy Troy and veteran John Anderson have new discs out, and James Otto, Shanna Crooks and Damien Horne have projects in the works.

"It seems about a third of the hits on the radio now are written by 'Big' Kenny or John Rich," said Wes Poe, music director at KSON in San Diego.

"It really is artist development," Alphin said. "As soon as things started working out for John and me, we were signing other writers and giving them publishing deals so they can survive while they're trying to find their hits and find their music and find their careers."

Rich chimes in, "Tim McGraw booked us in 75 major cities in 2004 _ before we had anything to go on _ other than he loved 'Horse of a Different Color.' We've been the beneficiaries of having artists bigger than us give us breaks like that. In turn, we try to pass that along."

With the new record, the duo continue courting the offbeat. They cover AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" and bring in guests Wyclef Jean and John Legend. The lead single "Lost in This Moment" is far more Hall & Oates than George Strait. The song was at No. 9 on the Billboard singles chart.

"There's no question that radio has taken to them," remarked Jay Walker, program director at KTTI in Yuma, Ariz. "I don't think you can call yourself a contemporary country station and not play Big & Rich. There are too many kids out there that really love the new sound of country."

That makes perfect sense to Alphin, who sees country as the new Top 40. "It's popular music today, more so than anything," he says.

Big & Rich's success may be exhibit No. 1.

___

On the Net:

http://www.bigandrich.com/

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.