A year-and-a-half after shaking up the country music industry with their debut album, “Horse of a Different Color,” Big & Rich are at it again.
On the pair’s sophomore album, “Comin’ to Your City” — due Nov. 15 via Warner Bros. Nashville — the duo rocks harder, faster and louder than ever in a polarizing blend of music sure to simultaneously light up their fans and startle country music purists.
Big Kenny and John Rich are proud to resume their roles as the misunderstood trailblazers of country music. As they sing on the album’s opener, “Somebody’s got to be unafraid to lead the freak parade.”
Rich says the first album said “this is who we are.” This album sends the message “we know who we are.” As a result, he says there was “less stress” in the studio this time out “because we know now what we can get away with.”
Or as Kenny says, in recording this album, “I never one time saw John dancing on top of a grand piano.”
“That’s what I do to relieve stress,” Rich explains. But this time, “I was chilled the whole time.”
In fact, they were so primed on this outing that they cut 24 songs, 13 of which made the album.
They also spent weeks sequencing the album until they felt it kicked into what Kenny calls “a hoedown party” that sometimes segues from one song into the next without stopping. “It takes you on a ride from beginning to the end,” Kenny says. “We make it a complete piece of music.”
Like the last outing, “Comin’ to Your City” was produced by Rich, Kenny and Warner Bros. chief creative officer Paul Worley. Big & Rich wrote all of the songs, either solo or together.
Among their best collaborations is “I Pray for You,” a song previously recorded by each artist when they were pursuing solo careers. It was the second song they ever wrote together, years before teaming up as an act. Kenny recorded it for a Hollywood Records album that was reissued this year; Rich for a BNA project that was never released.
Although the pair has sold 2.5 million copies of its debut, country radio has yet to widely embrace Big & Rich, the co-founders (or self-proclaimed “godfathers”) of Nashville’s famed Muzik Mafia artist collective and managing partners in the Warner Bros.-affiliated imprint Raybaw Records.
Despite becoming print and TV darlings, none of Big & Rich’s five radio singles has cracked the top 10 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, although three have gone top 20. The pair’s current single, the title cut from the new album, is still ascending the chart and is No. 27 this issue.
Rich calls radio “the last frontier. There are quite a few stations out there that totally get us and play us to death. But a lot of them don’t feel like their particular audience jives with what we are about. We think they’re wrong because when we play a song [in concert] that they’ve never played, their audience is screaming the words back at us. And we are selling 18-wheeler loads of T-shirts to their people. So it’s just a matter of turning that corner in the heads of program directors… We know radio will come around to us.”
Kenny adds, “We know the only thing we could do wrong is stop doing what we are doing.”
Gregg Swedberg, regional VP of programming at Clear Channel Radio, is one of the duo’s biggest supporters. While their music has largely done well at KEEY (K102) Minneapolis, where he is PD, Swedberg says that “in some places the songs haven’t been great research stories… Some [programmers] are scared that every song has to be 100% familiar and 100% liked” on music tests. “Big & Rich will probably never do that.”
But Swedberg thinks the country format’s parameters have widened to include acts like Big & Rich.
“This format has begun to accept artists that aren’t right down the middle, and Big & Rich definitely live on the edge,” he says. “The things that got them all that attention — the craziness, and the sideshow that they brought along — might have kept some people from realizing just how talented these two guys are. Some people just can’t see past the ‘different’ part to hear the great music.”
Another frontier Big & Rich hope to conquer is the film world. They recently traveled to Vietnam to shoot a documentary about their friend Niles Harris, a Vietnam War veteran whose story is the inspiration for the song “8th of November” on the new album. The future single includes a spoken intro by Kris Kristofferson.
The pair have a number of media opportunities close to the album’s release date, including TV appearances on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the 49th annual Country Music Association Awards (where they are twice nominated) and some late-night talk shows. They’re also the stars of a CMT concert special, “Wanted: Big & Rich—Alive in Deadwood,” which premiered Oct. 22 and will be rebroadcast multiple times.
The duo just wrapped the Deuces Wild tour with Brooks & Dunn Oct. 30 and embarked on its second American Revolution tour with Muzik Mafia members Wilson, Cowboy Troy (who has been contributing regularly to Billboard.com’s Tour Diary), James Otto and Jon Nicholson on Nov. 4. That tour runs through Dec. 11.