tiptoeing around its own idealism as lightly as it embraces its cynicism, modern Nashville has entered an era in which old, purist devotions have embedded themselves in country music in ways that go far beyond any easy opposition of "traditionalism" and "pop." These are not the oppositions of the past, and if any one act embodies the contradictions of today’s Nashville, it is Big & Rich, whose new Beyond Raising Hell and Amazing Grace stands as the duo’s most confounding record to date. In the country music of the last forty years—the countrypolitan era of the ‘60s, say, or the Outlaw movement of the ‘70s—there was a bemused and slightly defensive edge to Nashville’s rapprochement with the larger world. There’s little doubt that the pop veneer found in the work of Roger Miller, Glen Campbell, Buck Owens, and Charley Pride served as an easily dissolvable salve for country music’s feelings of inferiority in the face of the Beatles, or that the macho posturing of Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser, and Hank Williams Jr. helped the country-music industry compete with a pop universe that had become, by country’s standards, narcissistic, crass, and effeminate.

These movements had a heroic cast that Big & Rich, and contemporaneous country performers such as Toby Keith and Gary Allan, emulate with varying degrees of success. In ‘60s and ‘70s country, producers and musicians alike took pride in particularizing experience in a way that emphasized the inclusiveness of country music, as if to say, "We are working from home, from what we know, and we would like you to know it, too." From this attitude arose the usual, and now somewhat banal, paradoxes, often manifesting themselves as simple ironies. Thus, the self-knowledge of a performer such as Merle Haggard sharply contrasted with the indifference of the world he described. What made this interesting is that Haggard—a supreme example of the self-contained, totally individualist, and ultimately unknowable country artist—sought inclusion by emphasizing an exclusion made tolerable only by style. American music, we like to believe, has been shaped by great stylists. And of course, like the human body, style eventually fails.

What has happened in country music over the three years since Big & Rich's ascendancy illustrates the limits of style, and points to a new sort of purism that dispenses with actual musical production and simply takes any number of liberal pieties as givens. This is not to say that John Rich and "Big" Kenny Alphin embody all aspects of country music, good or bad, or that they don’t possess an easily identifiable manner of their own; for all their individualism, glitz, and outrageousness, they don't seem very interested in developing what a purist, or a critic, would call a worked-out, nuanced style. Today, this seems symptomatic of Nashville's country-music business but far from illustrative of the musical values that used to be the selling point for all those listeners who believed in the poetry of the common man—or the beautiful juxtaposition of strings and pedal steel.

Big & Rich have plenty of personality, which is what we often say of used-car salesmen or certain well-heeled Southern Baptist preachers, but they don’t discriminate too finely in their use of musical or verbal material. In Big & Rich’s music, as in much of the output of Nashville’s mainstream country-music industry, the exercise of taste is regarded as pointless and boring. They care about their purist devotions almost as much as they care about money, but at a distance; they seem connected to the music’s history, but lack the sort of artistic distance that leavens obsessive regard for the past.

This places Big & Rich squarely in a tradition that begins with Dwight Yoakam’s early records, Travis Tritt’s 1991 "Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler" (a cover of an obscure song by Kentucky-born Jimmy Skinner, who had a couple of 1950's country hits and was never heard from again), Marty Stuart's '92 "Me and Hank and Jumpin' Jack Flash" (as well as Stuart's duet with Johnny Cash on another Skinner song, "Doin' My Time"), and Billy Ray Cyrus' epochal glam-country single "Achy Breaky Heart." This mini-tradition peaks with the ascendancy of Shania Twain, the revitalization of Nashville’s Lower Broadway (site of the Ryman Auditorium, Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, and Hatch Show Print, and locus of a self-conscious but aggressive honky-tonk revival that included guitarist Greg Garing and the band BR-549, who named themselves after a comedy bit in the "Hee-Haw" television program), and late ‘90s records by the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, the Mavericks, and Hank Williams III.

As radical artists working in one of the world’s most conservative musical genres, Big & Rich share similarities with Dwight Yoakam and (the now largely forgotten) BR-549 in the way that they unabashedly admit their self-consciousness, and yet forge ahead, confident that the money and accolades will follow. This follows exactly the trajectory of Nashville itself, which in 1990 was still a small, insular Southern city with a half-dozen "meat-and-three" diners (three vegetables, one of which could be macaroni and cheese), one or two bagel shops on West End Avenue, a depressed downtown, and an already antiquated road system that still managed to serve its residents. By the mid ‘90s, the city had begun to boom: Lower Broadway had become a locus for hip young artists (along with tourists), and there were restaurants and coffee ships edging into gentrified neighborhoods in formerly marginal areas. Nashville was growing into a real metropolis with major traffic problems, crime, and that creeping self-awareness that signals skyrocketing real-estate values.

Comfortable with history but not in thrall to it, Nashville artists of the era demonstrated there was little in the country-music past they weren't comfortable with, as the muted, soul-inflected post-countrypolitan stylings of Kurt Wagner's Lambchop illustrated. Mandy Barnett, one of country’s most underrated singers, made a remarkably accomplished record in 1998 with Owen Bradley, countrypolitan’s chief architect. Bobbie Cryner, a singer whose 1996 Girl of Your Dreams put her in the same league as a classic ‘60s torch singer—Dusty Springfield, say—never became a star, but sounded convincing tackling "Son of a Preacher Man" and her own devastating "You'd Think He’d Know Me Better." Still, as fine as these records were, they seemed fairly straightforward glosses on other art, and while Lambchop enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, a sizeable following in Europe, neither Barnett nor Cryner enjoyed any real success. The women were still country-pop singers in the mold that Patsy Cline established, which meant that you had to attend to what they were singing about even as you reveled in their good looks, strong personae, and lush production values.

Around the same time, John Rich and Kenny Alphin recorded their solo collections. Both had been trying to make it in the music business for several years; Rich, especially, was ambitious as a songwriter, and did a stint in the utterly unremarkable Lonestar. (In the late ‘90s he either left the group or was asked to leave; reports vary). Their solo records prove extremely interesting listening. They’re accomplished, in their way. But more to the point, the records illustrate how even a little bit of experimentalism could make an ambitious artist appear outré in the context of Nashville. Just as Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace might illustrate a poverty of invention disguised by an unabashed depthlessness that could be taken as profound, even revolutionary, Rich's Underneath the Same Moon and Big Kenny's Live a Little invite, if not withstand, the same kind of critical attention given to any number of equally pretentious performers. These records are products of a certain refined taste in commercialism that doesn’t feel the need to slow down and differentiate between good and bad ideas, schlock and art, experiment and convention. Unreleased until a couple of years ago, Underneath and Live a Little clearly anticipate Rich and Alphin’s success in every way except the amount of money they brought in and the access to power they afforded their creators.

Filled with overdubbed vocals, fey ‘60s-style strings, oddly placed bits of barrelhouse piano, and flecks of what you might as well call mutant salsa, Live a Little is an overtly experimental record. And while it does wear on you, it's full of interesting ideas, and there’s an open-hearted yet knowing cast to Alphin's vocals that clearly anticipates the weird post-folkie non-harmonies Big & Rich favor. Rich's Underneath the Same Moon uses some of the same tricks; the title track is a vaguely Lennonesque piano ballad that turns into a power ballad halfway through, and bagpipes show up on "Old Blue Mountain," which is a pretty good old-fashioned country song. "Steel Bridges" sports a fretless bass, steel guitar, and some mild feedback. Most telling is "Something to Believe In," in which Rich and co-writers Alphin and Rodney Clawson compare a poor man "wearin’ blue jeans and high tops" to a man trying to "hit it big" in the stock market, and cap it all off with a farmer and a boat full of illegal immigrants. What is it that binds all of them together? Why, it’s money, of course, and what better thing to believe in?

Underneath the Same Moon leads with the Rich-Alphin song "I Pray for You," which Big Kenny does as "Pray for You" on Live a Little. Rich's version sounds more self-involved than Alphin's, but both singers seem to relate more to the song's implied success narrative than to its ostensible theme. "Sometimes I wake up / ’Cause I swear I felt your touch / And emotions overcome me / And the darkness is so cold." Quite clearly, this is the darkness of failure, of big dreams unrealized. You can see it in Rich and Alphin’s faces on these two records: Rich sounds clear-eyed, a bit coy and unformed, and more than a little pretentious, as if he’d do almost anything to engage our emotions; Alphin looks like the guy everyone knows is talented but who seems too loose, too fun-loving, to ever make it. The last song on Underneath is about how death will be all right, since Rich will see his "mama and my sister too," not to mention King David, while Alphin closes out Live a Little with a number that suggests doing the rumba might provide enough thrills for a lifetime.

Having already written songs for the likes of middle-of-the-road country star Martina McBride, Big & Rich were signed to Warner Bros. Nashville by Paul Worley, a producer, guitarist, and label executive who liked their songs and thought their image was weird enough to make a splash. Worley, who had produced Sara Evans’ landmark 2003 Restless, proved an ideal collaborator. Horse of a Different Color, the first Big & Rich record, appeared in 2004 and promptly became something of a cause célèbre for critics. Chuck Eddy, reviewing Horse in The Village Voice, said that Big & Rich "help point a way out for country." This is true enough, and as usual, Eddy managed to assert populist taste in a way that took into account the way real fans perceive music without abandoning that curious idealism that many critics, Eddy included, carried over from the glory days of dumb, gleefully reactionary metal, boogie, disco, and hard-assed country. All of which, of course, informs Big & Rich's music, although the countercultural residue one finds in the duo's rather obsessive concern with veterans of various foreign wars carries a hint of rue and anger, but more obviously paints Rich and Alphin as groupies of conflict.

But Eddy's statement seems to ignore the fact that country music fans weren’t necessarily seeking a way out of country—why should they, and where would they go? Contemporary Christian? What made Big & Rich stand out, and Eddy suggest that they might offer a way out of country, was their image. Their high-stepping video for "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" carried real innuendo but ultimately came across innocuous. Still, they looked a little weird, and Rich’s average handsomeness contrasted with Alphin’s slightly frazzled visage in a way that made it clear that weirdness was a matter of choice, not destiny. If Big & Rich sidestepped taste, they were decorous about it, and their posse of like-minded semi-freaks, the Muzik Mafia, only cemented their reputation as entrepreneurial misfits whose modest ambition was to blow your mind without the same ideological baggage earlier freaks had imposed upon the pop audience.

Horse was an enormous hit, as was Gretchen Wilson’s debut record and "Redneck Woman," written by Rich and Wilson, but its innovations went uncelebrated by aficionados of " quality" songwriting and by most of the rock and indie audience. Rich and Alphin's insight—that country fans were now living in cities and suburbs, and might actually listen to big-beat rock (which had already fused with rap) along with redneck country—was valid and interesting. As spectacle, Big & Rich were a force to be reckoned with, but for all the men and women of taste out there, what about their art?

This is where it gets tricky. It's one thing to talk about the business: the task of providing (often tailor-made) material for singers, as John Rich has done for Faith Hill, Wilson, Keith Anderson, and, most recently, John Anderson, on Anderson's Easy Money. Certainly, Big & Rich's image has helped country music's marketers realize that the audience is at least partially in tune with African-American beats, cooled-out hick attitudes, and loud guitars. Similarly, any modern country musician under 40 will name check the Eagles, given half a chance. Besides, the Nashville aesthetic had always been about rock and roll, disco (Tony Joe White’s filthy-minded and unexceptionally funky disco-country tune, "I Get Off on It," remains a neglected classic), a saccharine but attractive western mythos, hippie jams, and the like.

Big & Rich’s first record had moments of cockeyed brilliance, such as the Ennio Morricone-flavored "Wild West Show" and the unstoppable "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy." But it was their second record, Comin’ to Your City, that exposed the duo in all their contradictions and half-assed experimentation. The title track of Comin’ combined fiddle, banjo, and organ on top of a disco bass line, and threw in a bunch of cultural references that proved the duo had been on the road, just like real pop musicians. "We flew through Cincinnati and we all got really happy / Grabbed a bowl of that Skyline chili along the way / Then we rolled on into Canton, scared the hell out of Marilyn Manson," they sang. "Caught Up in the Moment" recalled the Climax Blues Band’s 1976 "Couldn’t Get It Right," and "Never Mind Me" was an Eagles song that had everything except a bridge.

Still, it was Comin’s most atypical song, "Blow Your Mind," that was the true breakthrough, and which made it clear that there was real sensibility and even taste—in fact, a taste for the out-of-control, the heroic, just like in the old days—behind the personae. A hoedown set just minutes before the end of the world, it summed up the post-Millennial tension implicit in their obsessive syntheses. "Tell me, brothers, sisters, do you listen when it rains? / Are you worried something’s gonna end it all today?" they sang. Constructed not like a country tune, but like something by English ‘60s singles band the Move, "Blow Your Mind" suggested some newfangled take on classic pop that, like a lot of great popular music, refused to get specific because its creators realized that being tied down was a drag. It’s the most interesting moment in Big & Rich’s oeuvre. That was about it, though. When the duo sang about the horrors of Vietnam on "8th of November," they sounded no more or less intelligent than most commentators on the war, although getting former helicopter pilot Kris Kristofferson to say a few words on the track was an inspired touch. So much for art.

And so much for Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace, which leads with "Lost in This Moment," a wedding song that is really about Rich and Alphin being lost in their moment of fame. (In a Great American Country interview he gave around the time of Between’s release, Rich gave the camera a level stare and declared that he was at exactly the right place at the right time for this particular moment, and seemed to mean it.) It’s an all-purpose song, and therefore pretty close to worthless. The title track features their austere, not to say dusty, vocal harmonies, and the auteurs sound a little defensive when they sing, "Yeah, I get a little crazy trying to have a little fun."

They sound even less honest on "Faster than Angels Fly," about how in touch with the streets they are. "Ghost-haunted barrio in Hollywood/Graffiti-stained wailin’ wall," they sing, sad philosophizers of their own fame, which puts them within shouting distance of country music's great theme of failure. By the time the record starts in on the six songs that compose the " rocking" half of the record, you’re convinced that their humor has flown. The acoustic version of AC/DC’s "You Shook Me All Night Long" adds nothing to the song, and to hear them sing "We love our country" on the closing cut, "Loud," is to feel a creeping depression that isn’t alleviated by the artiness of the whole package: the CD insert features Alphin and Rich’s heads floating above a city skyline, while they look comfortable in fur coat and scarves, on the page before the lyrics start.

You come away from Between Raising Hell with the inescapable feeling that Rich and Alphin are more interested in worrying about their fame and parsing their own presumably riotous but perhaps excessive good times than in creating music. This, one surmises, is the consequence of not worrying about taste, art, or value (other than market value) in any but the most simplistic terms. Maybe they're auteurs after all, but in the classic sense of songwriters and producers who benefit from talented, committed singers. Just like the old days, even, of Nashville's Music Row, Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Owen Bradley, even Phil Spector, and the Brill Building. But Easy Money hasn't burned up the charts and likely will not do so, so its considerable art will go largely unnoticed. Apart from the Muzik Mafia members themselves, the duo have no imitators in Nashville, which continues on its path of matching songs to artists and developing all manner of basically post-singer-songwriter artists for the Americana crowd.

The town has a surprising number of talented, disaffected indie-rockers who share Big & Rich's philosophy of boundary-less music without ever giving Alphin and Rich a second thought. Indie artists in Nashville, such as the Features, Lone Official, Cortney Tidwell, and Ghostfinger, all get off on mutating older musical forms, and do it with real originality, since in their music one often feels the tension between their modest success and the impossible success of major country stars. After all, they’re in "Hillbilly Hollywood," as a Nashville bumper sticker reads. In fact, their art can feel wistful, second-hand, neurotic, or just plain bereft, but these younger performers all have taste and indie cred to fall back on, and Big & Rich abandoned that tightrope when they realized they were never going to make it as mainstream country artists playing the polite games that Nashville demands. It’s impossible to say whether Big & Rich are too big for country, or that country is too small for them. The truth is probably elsewhere, holed up in a grimy place far from fame and expensive fur coats, and if Rich and Alphin really wanted to find it, they’ve got the money to make it happen.

By: Edd Hurt
Published on: 2007-07-09
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