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No borders to their country

Big & Rich shake up the usually conservative genre by making room for rap, R&B and others.

June 15, 2007|Holly Gleason | Special to The Times

NASHVILLE — "I don't drive a truck. I drive a Bentley GT. Black on black," says John Rich with a chrome gleam in his eye. An audacious statement, but then the songwriter-producer-cowboy hat-wearing half of kinetic country duo Big & Rich isn't known for subtlety. In a format defined by conservatism, Big & Rich have been the glaring exception to the industry standard.

Indeed, when Big & Rich exploded onto country music's horizon in 2004 with the propulsive "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" -- trailing a self-proclaimed "freak parade" of midgets, a 6-foot-2 black cowboy rapper, an interpretative painter, hippies and a "Redneck Woman" named Gretchen Wilson -- it was a systemic shock to the staid genre.

The duo, whose motto is "Love Everybody," brought their Technicolor assault to the 2003 Academy of Country Music Awards at the invitation of producer Rac Clark, who was seeking a visual shock for that year's show.

"People thought I was crazy," the veteran producer admits. "But I'd seen the ['Save a Horse'] video and I knew they had that visual charge....

"We're talking a midget riding a cannon that shot confetti, a black rapper who came out and danced," Clark said of their MuzikMafia entourage, which rolls into the Key Club on Tuesday. "You had show girls live and a marching band on the video screens. It was a freak show like country'd never seen."

Country radio wasn't sold. "Ride a Horse" drove the album past triple platinum certification but peaked at No. 11 on Billboard's Country Singles chart. Although there was no denying the duo's connection, "Ride a Horse" remained their best performing single over two albums. Their second album, "Comin' to Your City," slowed to single-platinum status, with sales of just more than 1 million copies.

Unrepentant, Big Kenny (Alphin) and John Rich -- Alphin the Bohemian yin to Rich's starched shirt, shiny belt buckle yang -- have a sonic vision. Tagged "Music Without Prejudice," Big & Rich's aggressive records constitute a collision of big hooks, grandiose production and lots of audible kick. It's not polite Saturday-night-at-the-Opry country.

Going into "Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace," they knew they'd hit a crossroads. Never ones to compromise, the pair -- who've written hits for Wilson, Faith Hill, Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw and others -- wanted to reach as many listeners as possible.

"Part way through, we started asking ourselves, 'What if we quit giving all these commercial songs to these other artists?' " Rich recalls. "Up to that point, we thought only these certain songs are Big & Rich songs, and these were too commercial....

"So we had to tweak our philosophy," he continues. "We were guilty of the very thing we're always talking about: We were prejudiced about music. Once we did that, the album fell into place."

They continue pushing the envelope with the new album -- folding reggae verses into a country chorus on "Please Man" with Wyclef Jean doing the rap; the swirling psychedelia melting into '80s metal guitars and sawing fiddle on the party anthem "Radio," do-si-do'ing AC/DC's hard-rocking "You Shook Me All Night Long." But they refined their vision to embrace classic balladry with the smooth country-soul of "Lost in This Moment," their first single to crack Billboard's Top 10 country chart.

"People are surprised it's Big & Rich," nationally syndicated "After MidNite" radio personality Blair Garner says. "First time you hear it, you don't know ... because it's so melodic rather than groove-based. People are calling, not knowing it's them, but knowing they like it.

"It's tricky. We expect another 'Save a Horse,' and that's not this. But that's not them, either. They're not about repeating."

"I'm completely in love," Alphin says, acknowledging the first single's surprising embrace of such a straightforward emotion. "I've got a family -- my wife, our little baby. It's time for that; it's where we are right now."

Where they are right now is on top: The album debuted this week at No. 1 on the country chart and No. 6 on the overall pop album list.

As ambitious as they are and as savvy as they are about defying the status quo, they use their clout to expand what's possible. Rich and Alphin have started Raybaw, a label and publishing consortium to encourage developing artists. Their collaboration with Jean began at his post-Grammy House of Blues concert, which Rich attended and even wound up onstage with the former Fugee.

"He thinks like we do," Rich explains. "Why do you have to have boundaries between music?" The pair began communicating. The idea for "Please Man" came as Rich was sweating a speeding ticket. Recorded by sending MP3 files back and forth, it was artist-to-artist collaboration.

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