Big & Rich

When John Rich met Big Kenny in 1998, both had been through the record industry wringer. Rich had been in the country band Lonestar before launching a brief solo career. Big Kenny didn't become a full-time musician until he was in his 30s, but a big record deal and the ensuing album went nowhere, so he launched a wild outfit called luvjOi.

A friend tried to drag Rich to one of Kenny's shows at a Nashville club; Rich's response, he says, was "Big what? I don't think I want to see anybody named that." But he went anyway -- whereupon he was whacked in face by one of the many pieces of bubblegum thrown from the stage into the audience. ("I thought that everybody who came to one of my shows should leave with something," explains Big Kenny, not unreasonably.) Despite the tensions caused by this aerial assault, the two men met after the show and made tentative arrangements to write songs together. Then one or the other of them blew off the first three appointments.

When they finally did get together, they liked the first song they wrote and loved the second, "I Pray for You." They weren't ready to record together quite yet, so the song became John's first single as a solo artist. His subsequent album was adored by the listeners who heard it -- but not many people did, because the record label dropped him via e-mail before they actually put the thing out.

John and Big Kenny became friends and writing partners, and they kept jamming at each other's shows and clambering onstage with singer-songwriter pals like James Otto and Jon Nicholson. The casual sessions soon turned into a weekly Tuesday night gig at a small Nashville establishment called the Pub of Love. "We wanted to do it on the worst night of the week in the weirdest place in town," says Rich. "So that if anybody showed up, they'd be there because they wanted to hear music, not because they wanted to schmooze."

The sessions were dubbed the Muzik Mafia, and they grew to involve far more than just John, Big Kenny and their immediate circle of friends. "It was every style of music," says Rich. "We've had everyone come in from Randy Scruggs to Saliva. We had fiddle players, jugglers, guys blowing fire out of their mouths."

"As the Mafia kept going," says Big Kenny, "we watched it go from twenty people to three or four hundred people, slamming in the joint. And that kind of made us think, 'Hell, people love what we do, why worry about what anybody will accept?' If I'm good by myself and you're good by yourself, and we come together, we can be even better and more insane."

The Muzik Mafia helped get Big & Rich signed to Warner Bros. Nashville. Paul Worley, the company's new chief creative officer, had produced the Martina album with Martina McBride; it included "She's a Butterfly," which John and Kenny had written after meeting a teenage girl who was suffering from brain cancer at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. Worley's daughter was also a regular at the Muzik Mafia shows, and at her urging he met them in his new office.

"We thought we had a meeting with him to pitch songs for Martina," says Kenny. "After we did a few of those songs, he said, 'I understand you have this Muzik Mafia thing going, this Big & Rich thing. Play me some of that.' I said, 'Dude, that ain't nothing you're going to want to cut on anybody.' But he said he wanted to hear it anyway. So we played him three songs, and he stood up, slammed his fist down on the table and said, 'By God, boys, I want to do this!'

"We looked at him and said, 'You want to do what?'" And he said, 'I want Big & Rich to be the first act I sign to Warner Bros."

Horse of a Different Color, the first fruit of Worley's signing, starts with a sermon: "Brothers and sisters," declaims Big Kenny, "we are here for one reason and one reason alone: to share our love of music." It ends, an hour later, with a hymn of sorts: "Live This Life," which features a wailing background vocal by McBride. In between are party songs and sober songs, drinking songs and thinking songs, songs about the legends of the West and songs about the casualties of our streets. Often as not, the songs fall into a few of those categories at the same time.

"We never went, 'Nah, this isn't a country song,' or 'This doesn't sound like something anybody would cover,'" says Kenny. "We were writing stuff that was out there. We've written bone country and psychedelic rock and everything in between. We just love music, and we like taking all aspects of it and seeing what comes out.

"What we're doing now is American music," he adds. "And the most American music format that I know of is country. That audience understands us. People that listen to country music don't just listen to country music. The kids who are coming up listen to Johnny Cash, then Kenny Chesney, then Ludacris or Outkast or Kid Rock. I mean, John's little brother wears a John Deere hat and an Eminem t-shirt."