Nashville — The Pub of Love, a funky downtown hole in the wall, sat only six blocks from Music Row before it closed two years ago. But for Kenny Alphin and John Rich of the million-selling country duo Big & Rich, that distance represents the difference between the bottom and the top.
"Dude, you couldn't get any lower than where we were," says Alphin, who performs under the stage name Big Kenny. "But that only makes success that much sweeter."
Indeed, Big & Rich, along with friend and collaborator Gretchen Wilson of "Redneck Woman" fame, are at the center of the biggest current success story in country music. The duo's debut, "Horse of a Different Color," has sold 2 million copies since May without the benefit of a Top 10 single, a rarity in country music.
Already this year they've starred in a CMT reality series, "MuzikMafia TV," that helped make January the most successful ratings month in the cable station's history. The duo also has been given its own label, Raybaw Records, an acronym for red and yellow, black and white, a phrase borrowed from the gospel song "Jesus Loves the Little Children."
In the dark days of winter, they toured arenas as co-headliners with Wilson, whom John Rich discovered and whose 3-million-selling debut, "Here for the Party," he co-produced. Their American Revolution tour played more than 20 concert dates across America and sold out most of them. They even showed up as a halftime act at the NBA All-Star game.
Along the way, they've become the most polarizing act in country music since the Dixie Chicks spoke out against President Bush two years ago. The debate is over how they blend rap and hard rock into their songs, such as the popular dance-club tune "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)."
Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Assn., says his organization was flooded with letters of protest after the CBS telecast of the annual CMA Awards in November.
"The typical comment was, 'What the heck was that? And what in the world is it doing on a country music show?' " says Benson. "We expected that. It's part of why we had them on. We wanted to show people the act that had shaken up our genre the most in the previous year. The response just proved that there's a lot of passionate opinions about these guys."
Big & Rich, 41 and 31, respectively, would like to say they planned it that way. But in truth their success came out of a go-for-broke attitude to make music they loved instead of following the usual country music formulas.
"Really, what happened was we decided to ignore the music industry and have some fun, because nothing was happening for us anyway," says Rich. "Maybe it proves that the best way to succeed is to do what you love and forget everything else everyone tells you."
During a series of interviews that took them from a Warner Bros. conference room to the set of a music video, both performers were animated, obviously energized by their success. Both are cocky and outspoken, neither can sit still, and they love to spout philosophy. Rich talks a mile a minute and is quick with a quip or an angry retort. Alphin talks even faster, often rambling about love, peace and partying all night long.
The excitement surrounding the group has drawn comparisons to the 1970s' "outlaw movement" led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, a legacy CMT tried to make explicit by programming a "CMT Outlaws" live concert special that paired Big & Rich with rebel country performers Hank Williams Jr. and Tanya Tucker as well as rockers Kid Rock and Metallica's James Hetfield, among others.
However, whereas Nelson and Jennings were embraced across the board by critics and fans, Big & Rich have split both fans and critics, who tend to either love or hate the duo. The band was voted the best country duo or group of 2004 in the annual Country Music Critic's Poll conducted by Nashville Scene magazine. In the poll, published in the Jan. 27 issue, Tracks magazine music editor Will Hermes called Big & Rich "the country music story of 2004." Others criticized them as a half-baked Nashville remake of Kid Rock or as over-calculated rebel posers.
The road up for the songwriting partners began soon after they bottomed out in 2001. Both had recently lost record deals. Alphin was dropped by Hollywood Records shortly after the 1999 release of his pop-rock debut, "Big Kenny's Live a Little," which barely got into stores before the label pulled the plug. He then formed a band, Luvjoi, that received music industry attention but no lasting contract offers.
RCA Records let Rich go in 2000, just before the release of his debut solo album, "I Pray for You." He'd been fired from the country-pop band Lonestar two years earlier, right before the group enjoyed multiplatinum success with the award-winning love song "Amazed."