Founders of Nashville songwriting collective the Muzik Mafia, Big Kenny and John Rich took Nashville by storm in the early 2000s by consciously bucking every trend that Music City held dear. Infusing their take on country music with healthy doses of hard rock, rap, and a wacky sense of humor, Big & Rich have redefined what being country and being from the South mean in the new millennium.
Country music had no bigger story in 2004 than the rise of the Muzik Mafia, a renegade group of Music City misfits led by Big & Rich (Big Kenny Alphin and John Rich, the latter formerly of Lonestar) and Gretchen Wilson. Both acts shook up Nashville's lethargic, formulaic format--Wilson with her take-no-bull brand of redneck chic, and Big & Rich with their eclectic, wild-haired blend of honky-tonk, rock, rap, ballad, and western, the shoot-'em-up motif for their traveling circus, i.e., Wild West show. Their debut, Horse of a Different Color, which showcases the pair's unusual high-low vocal harmony, is both funny and irreverent ("Kick My Ass"), not to mention clever. (They sing "bad word" in place of a rhyming epithet.) Boasting "music without prejudice" in their self-mythologizing "Rollin' (The Ballad of Big & Rich)," they reference Charley Pride as "the man in black," and trot out country music's first African American rapper, Cowboy Troy. Yet race turns to "racy" in the duo's hit single "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," the disc's least interesting cut. The easy laugh and rapped stanzas overshadow the smarter lyrics on the rest of the record, which concerns itself not only with frontier justice, but, surprisingly, with old-time religion (Jesus, tolerance, and in a song about sexual abuse, "Holy Water"). Like many professional funny men, Big & Rich--accomplished songwriters and (now) producers--are dead serious beneath it all. Even if this horse opera of a novelty act doesn't last, look for them to shape much of what gallops out of Nashville for a good, long run. --Alanna Nash
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