ROCKIN' THE COUNTRY

Big & Rich realized mixing country, rock and rap was a big risk. But the duo took the gamble - and shook up country music while hitting the big score.

Big & Rich knew their music would get a reaction. They just didn't know whether it would be positive or negative.

"We figured we were too radical to just be ignored," says John Rich, who formed the duo with songwriting partner "Big" Kenny Alphin. "We hoped people would love what we do as much as we do, but we also realized we could be run out of town for trying something new."

They now know the answer. Having sold two million copies of their debut album, Horse of a Different Color, the duo has joined friend Gretchen Wilson as the biggest breakthrough artists of 2004.

In the beginning, however, the two had plenty of reason to worry. "We knew we were different, and Nashville doesn't always do well with different," says John, citing songs like the popular dance-club hit "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" and "Wild West Show" as examples of the duo's groundbreaking sound. "What would country fans think of rap breaks and heavy metal guitars? Will people get our music? Will they understand what we're doing?"

Despite their concerns, the duo had high hopes because their live shows had received such a positive reaction. "We'd been playing sold-out shows for months in Nashville," continues John. "Getting the magic of our live show on record, that was our main concern. We really worked on getting the right flow, and it worked. Not only did people get it, they loved it - beyond our wildest dreams."

Indeed, they have. Besides double-platinum album sales, the duo will star with friend Gretchen Wilson in a new a CMT reality series, MuzikMafia TV. Named after a weekly nightclub show launched by Kenny and John when they were struggling songwriters, the series will follow Kenny, John, Gretchen and other MuzikMafia regulars on tour and at home. The series will premiere on Jan. 15.

"They're not only going to showcase our music, they're going to tell our stories and show all the crazy and creative things that go on around the MuzikMafia," says Big Kenny.

In an unprecedented move for a new act, Big & Rich also have been given their own record label, Raybaw Records - short for Red and Yellow, Black and White Records. They plan at first to put out albums by their MuzikMafia friends. Kenny and John are currently producing the first release, the full-length debut by Big & Rich band member Cowboy Troy, "the world's first successful black country rapper," as Kenny likes to describe him.

But success hasn't come without controversy. "What we do is polarizing, we know that," says Kenny. "When people first hear us, they tend to love us or hate us. But we're finding that people who give us a second chance, if they see us live or if they listen to the album a few times, they come around. We're finding a lot of people who said they didn't get it the first time they heard it, but now they love us."

Kenny acknowledges that the duo, with its rap breaks and crunching guitars, is a new sound for country music. "There's nothing safe about what we're doing," says Kenny. "But I've been taking risks all my life."

Indeed, Kenny didn't even move to Nashville until he was in his 30s. The native of Culpepper, Va., where his 75- year-old father still manages a family farm, Kenny began working while still in his teens. He started a logging operation while still in high school, and by age 25 he ran a construction company with 75 employees.

"I've never known anything but hard work and responsibility," says Kenny. "But I always had a creative side. I always knew in my heart that there was something else I needed to do. The more I wrote and sang songs, the more people told me that I ought to move to Nashville and pursue music full-time. So I gave up my construction company, locked the doors on my house and moved to Nashville 11 years ago. I went completely broke, but I didn't give up."

John grew up in similarly rural circumstances in Texas. So when someone questions if they're country artists, both of them quickly cite their backgrounds. "You can't be more of a country boy than I am," says Kenny, and you can't be more country than John is. It's where we grew up, and it's the way we grew up."

But the duo believes their music reflects the fact that these days young people growing up in rural America listen to all kinds of music, including country.

"As much as we both listened to Merle Haggard, we also were brought up listening to The Beatles. In this day and age we're bombarded by different styles. It's around you all the time. The good stuff gets embedded in your soul, and sooner or later you're going to exude it. If you're true to your creative soul, it's going to come out. That's all we're doing. We're country boys making our kind of country music."

The duo hopes their new Top 20 hit, the poignant ballad "Holy Water," reveals an aspect of Big & Rich that previous songs didn't.

"We got stereotyped a bit with 'Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),' " says John. "It was such a huge song that people got a preconceived idea about us from it. That's why we wanted to release 'Holy Water,' because it shows the complete other side of what we do, which is on the serious side of the spectrum. It seems radio is a lot more receptive of this song, because it's not as polarizing as 'Save a Horse.' The only thing we haven't done yet is have a hit song, but we're hoping 'Holy Water' might break that barrier for us."

While the stars hope radio joins their parade before long, John and Kenny said they don't plan to let anything hold them back now that they've finally got the break they always wanted. "Where do we go from here?" asks Kenny. "To the moon! To Mars! Dude, we're going interplanetary!"

- Michael McCall

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