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Kenny and John make it big, strike it rich

By Robert Loy, September 2004

Music is probably the most promiscuous of all the art forms, with all of the various branches of the harmonics family tree occasionally reinvigorating their bloodlines by accepting a graft or two from another branch. It's been going on for as long as there's been music, but that doesn't stop the purists from raising a hue and cry every time it happens anew.

History is now repeating itself again with Big & Rich's first album "Horse of a Different Color" taking over the charts, and its incorporation of blues, gospel and rap ("Country music without prejudice" as Big & Rich call it) sending the self-appointed guardians of musical integrity into a tizzy.

Which surprises Big Kenny, one half of the groundbreaking duo, since he has always considered himself something of a purist.

"When it comes to music, I've always been a purist. I just love to hear real music. You can just feel when someone's speaking to you. I think that's what's always caught me about music, no matter what genre it came from, it's just about was it great or not.

"I think you take in everything you've ever listened to, and if you're really being true to your creativity, you just create, and you don't think bureaucratically about it. You don't think does this fit here, does it fit there. No, you just say 'Oh, wow, this is a cool song that just popped into my head. This is a gift that has been bestowed upon me. Here is something I need to say, so I'm just going to say it.' Then if someone wants to listen to it, that's great."

And evidently people do want to listen to it. Their first single "Wild West Show" didn't make much of an impression, but their second one "Save a Horse, (Ride a Cowboy)," can fairly be termed a phenomenon. At press time, it was in the top 10 on the record charts and moving up fast and was being used as the theme to the World Series of Poker on ESPN, while the video for that tune was number one at CMT and VHI Country.

This despite the fact that the song has been criticized for its spoken word centerpiece and some television stations are reluctant to air the video, since they don't know what to make of the midgets and the man making out with a mannequin, not to mention with the dancing women in business suits and stockings but apparently no underwear.

Did Big Kenny foresee any of the potential controversy?

"Nah, we never thought it was controversial. We're just out there having fun, and these are our friends, so to us this is just the way we live. I guess if you live in the land of Oz than Oz wouldn't seem that crazy to you."

Neither one of these guys was actually born in the Emerald City. Big Kenny, a former carpenter, hails from Culpeper Va. and his partner John Rich, late of the band Lonestar, is from Texas. And though they seem to have sprung up overnight, they've actually been writing and playing together since 1998.

"Lonestar had a meeting, and they decided that where John wanted to go and where the rest of the band wanted to go was too different. He was out of the band in January, and in February, he met me. We weren't sure about each other when we first met each cuz we both can come across a little strong. We're both front men. But we just decided to see if we could write a song. We wrote a song, we liked it, we said, 'wow, we ought to try this again sometime.' We wrote again the next day. And now we've written over 300 songs together."

In the early days of their friendship, Kenny helped write country songs for Rich's solo career, and Rich co-wrote rock songs for Kenny's raucous rock band luvjOi.

Eventually, they started jamming together every Tuesday night at a Nashville spot called the Pub of Love. Their no-holds barred style of music attracted an eclectic bunch of acolytes (including Mercury artist James Otto and Gretchen Wilson) who soon became known as the Muzik Mafia. The Muzik Mafia grew to include hundreds of musicians, and every style was welcome, from hardcore country to heavy metal.

Big & Rich drew the attention of Paul Worley at Warner Brothers, who signed them to a contract. And it wasn't long after that another unofficial member of the Muzik Mafia, Martina McBride, fell in love with their music and was instrumental in getting them out on the road with the hottest artist in country today.

"Martina and her husband John became avid fans of ours," Kenny explains. "She had cut a song we wrote called "She's a Butterfly" that John and I wrote about a little girl we knew who had brain cancer. So the next thing you know they're having dinner with the McGraws, and they drag Tim out to John's truck and played them the CD. Tim had never heard of us, but he listened to two songs and calls his manager and says 'I know who I want to go on tour with me.'"

And that tour has been one of the hot tickets of this concert season. Even though it's different than your usual country and western show. You see, having a platinum album and tons of adoring fans is not enough for these two guys. They want to change country music as we know it.

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