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What began as an underground movement led by Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich has exploded into a commercial empire that's reshaping country music.

"Brothers and sisters, let us come together," Big Kenny bellows in his best Southern preacher impersonation. As he extends a hand, fellow members of the MuzikMafia crowd around him. John Rich, Kenny's partner in Big & Rich, and Gretchen Wilson lean in to clasp hands. A dozen others-musicians, singers, even a painter-link fingers like a sports team gathering for an all-for- one cheer before a big game.

Kenny closes his eyes and continues. "Lord! Tonight, the MuzikMafia family gathers to spread music and love to a crowd of thousands upon thousands. We want to thank you for this opportunity to show them what the MuzikMafia is all about. Thank you, Lord, for helping our dreams come true. Can I get an amen?"

The throng, gathered backstage in a Texas arena before a concert, roars with rowdy approval.

The MuzikMafia members have plenty to shout about. A year ago, this extended family of Music City rejects and outsiders were struggling to pay the bills while playing a free late-night club show every Tuesday.

Now the collective has become a seemingly unstoppable powerhouse that has launched two of the hottest new acts in country music: Gretchen and Big & Rich. Gretchen won the 2004 CMA Horizon Award and has sold three million copies of her debut album, while Big & Rich have soared past the two million sales mark with their first effort together.

"The rocket ship has taken off!" declares Big Kenny, who regularly speaks in exclamations. "MuzikMafia is off the ground and in orbit, baby! There's no stopping us now!"

No hyperbole here. MuzikMafia already has its own successful CMT series, MuzikMafia TV, and its own Warner Bros.- distributed record label, Raybaw Records. (The name is an acronym for Red and Yellow, Black and White.) Even corporate America has jumped onboard: General Motors put up big bucks to get Gretchen and Big & Rich to pitch Chevy Trucks. What's more, there are plans in the works to introduce a dizzying variety of new Mafia-connected artists in the coming year.

"The influence of MuzikMafia right now is insane!" adds Kenny. "People love the idea-music without prejudice, music without boundaries. It's enabling us to keep crossing borders everywhere."

But it's that very open-minded approach that has made this crew controversial-with some believing they're pushing the boundaries of country music too far. Big & Rich's embrace of hip-hop and heavy-metal influences has turned off country purists who fear the music is being diluted, while Gretchen's in-your-face attitude has given country perhaps its most contentious female star since her hero, Tanya Tucker.

To read more about the MuzikMafia, pick up the new Country Weekly hitting newsstands on the sale date of February 28!