Big & Rich

It’s not easy taking John Rich seriously during the phone interview. While he’s talking, right there on our desk is a story in a magazine with pictures of Rich dressed up in a chicken suit. His musical counterpart, Big Kenny, looks like Carmen Miranda, and the two were running through the San Diego Zoo flashing $100 bills.

It’s the “new country,” folks.

And that’s not all: There’s this story in the Big & Rich press package that sounds like it’s concocted by a publicist somewhere. It takes place in Nashville and involves John Rich and Gretchen Wilson breaking into the Ryman Auditorium the night Wilson got her record deal. It can’t be true. It just can’t.

But it is.

“Isn’t that great? Something that could have been a possible felony turned into a profitable situation,” Rich told Pollstar.

“The day she signed, her and I and two, three other friends decided we wanted to go out on Nashville by God, and tear it up

go down on Broadway and up to Printers Alley where her and I first met, get up onstage and kind of complete the circle. We were walking by the Ryman Auditorium and I jumped up on those steps and started yanking on those doors at about 2 a.m.

“She said, ‘John Rich! What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Gretchen, every time I walk by these doors for the last 10 years in the middle of the night, I always pull on them because I know one of these nights they’re going to forget to lock them.”

And just as he said that, the door opened. Wilson’s eyes popped out, Rich said, and they all ran inside. On the stage was a guitar. Wilson grabbed it and began singing Pasty Cline’s “You’ve Got Leaving On Your Mind” into the empty auditorium, her voice bouncing off the stained glass windows, until a security guard kicked them out.

Wilson turned to Rich and said she couldn’t believe the door was unlocked.

“I said, ‘Well, Gretchen, I’ve been yankin’ on doors for you for the last five years, it’s about damned time they started comin’ open.’ And then we walked up to Printers Alley and proceeded to drink until 5 a.m.”

The event is the storyboard for Wilson’s next video.

Between two singles alone, Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” and Big & Rich’s “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)”, country music was turned on its ear this summer, and the respective debut albums each landed in SoundScan’s Top 10. All this from some square peg Nashville songwriters who got together at a club on Tuesday nights.

Rich, by the way, is credited for bringing Wilson into the group. At the time, the latter was a bartender who had never written a song. With Rich’s encouragement, the two collaborated on about 80. Big & Rich’s total is 300, and Rich alone has written 800.

Success isn’t anything new to Rich, who played bass in Lonestar for eight years before he was let go, and has played about 1,100 shows (in fact, he may not even remember, but he spoke to Pollstar in 1996 when Lonestar was on the cover). Kenny was more rock ‘n’ roll, and owned both a logging and construction company before moving to Nashville to try his luck as a songwriter for hire.

Big & Rich

They weren’t even a band when they met their manager, Dale Morris, at a backyard party thrown by William Morris Agency’s Greg Oswald and his brother Mark, a promoter. Morris pulled up in a “big boat” and eventually sat down with the duo and listened to them play some tunes.

“We’ve got a lot of extremely smart, wise individuals around us, Dale Morris, Paul Worley, Mark Oswald, these kind of people, and they tell us what they think we ought to do. Then, Kenny and I decide how we want to move forward,” Rich said. “Normally, by the time you’ve run it through that many filters, you’re not going to screw it up, you’re not going to make a bad call and, fortunately, we haven’t with our careers yet.”

So far, Rich has not heard of any copycat bands coming out of Nashville, no Young & Desperate, no Chicken & Miranda. The duo has more of a flair for rock ‘n’ roll than most (Kid Rock jammed with them back at that Nashville club), and their band includes Cowboy Troy, a 6-foot-5-inch African American rapper. (They’re also known to bust out a lyric or two from Ludacris onstage.)

“You don’t put black, rappin’ cowboys on your record thinking that’s going to get you on the radio. You don’t put a guy who got thrown out of a country band that played bass and pair me up with a rock ‘n’ roll guy and say, ‘Hey! That’ll work! That’ll get us on the radio!'” Rich said. “It’s all been gut feeling, gut responses and soulful relationships between a lot of different people.”

He said the Muzik Mafia used to have a lot of “frustrating conversations” about how to break in to radio but still maintain their belief system. Walking that tightrope between keeping true to one’s self and making something commercially viable has paid off, though, because it’s been a long time since Rich has had to pay for his beer.

“Yeah, you know, that’s the thing: When you can actually afford the bar tab, you don’t have to pay for it anymore!” he joked.