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Big & RichAll Access
By Big Kenny John Rich Allen Rucker
Center StreetCopyright © 2007 Baalt, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHEN TWO PLANETS COLLIDE
BIG KENNY: "So I guess John was looking for something to do, so he came to my show. He was standing in the back of the room and when the show was over, I had a bag of bubble gum on stage to throw out and I threw one way toward the back and hit him in the head."
JOHN RICH: "It got me right in the face. And I thought, All right, now I know I really don't like this guy."
In the beginning, one of us was essentially a country-tinged rocker and the other was a rock-tinged country singer songwriter, and we were both struggling to survive in Nashville. We're both country boys, for sure, just country boys from different parts of the country and with slightly different musical personalities, both then and now. From the first time we met to the day we decided to become the entity Big & Rich was a good six years. For that period we just kind of orbited around each other, like two separate musical planets, until we finally collided and merged our two distinct-and unorthodox-styles into one.
FROM CULPEPER TO NASHVILLE
Big Kenny comes from an unusually rock-solid family. He was raised on a farm outside Culpeper, Virginia, that's been in his family for eight generations. The farmhouse he grew up in was built before the Revolutionary War, more than 250 years ago. The plumbing is a little better now, but the original house is still standing. His mother, much like her own mother, was born and raised there and still resides there at age seventy-one. It was from his mother that Kenny first developed a love of music-she was the choir director at their church-and the encouragement to live a creative life.
Big Kenny's father, Bill Alphin, is a strong, upstanding man and the closest thing to a saint that Kenny has ever met. At seventy-five, he still raises cattle on the family spread. Although his hip has a way of coming out of joint every so often, he just gets it fixed and keeps on working. He is one tough son of a gun.
Before the day he took off for Nashville, Big Kenny was in construction and helped farm his father's land. His mother urged him to learn to do something with tools. Her thinking was, no matter where you are in life, as long as you have some tools you can be useful and probably employable. To this day, you can sit Big Kenny in a wood shop or a metal shop and he'll get absolutely lost in making stuff. When you think about it, a craftsman making furniture and a craftsman making music aren't all that different. Just different tools.
Big Kenny sang in church but never had the clichéd country singer's childhood dream to go to Nashville and hit the big time. At twenty-five, he ran a big construction operation in Culpeper, Alphin Homes/Noble Construction, with seventy-five employees and what looked like a lifetime of work. Unfortunately, by the time he hit twenty-nine, there was this thing called the Savings and Loan Scandal. Economic conditions changed overnight, and Big Kenny was completely busted. In one big gust of economic wind, he went from seventy-five employees to one. His real estate holdings were worthless, and he was working nonstop just to fulfill the construction contracts he'd already signed off on.
So one night, Big Kenny was sitting in a bar, nursing his wounds, when someone pushed him on stage to perform with a local musician. He sings a song and sits back down. A few minutes later, the guitar player asks him if he wants to be in a band. Sure, he says, why the hell not? He fondly remembers the band was terrible and he was even worse.
It wasn't long after that when someone told Big Kenny he was a good enough singer and songwriter that he should think about going to Nashville to make a little money.
Big Kenny: "I'm like, what? They actually pay people to write songs? I was so naive that I didn't know songwriting was a paying job. I'd never thought about it."
If someone had said something about "intellectual property," Big Kenny the farm boy would have been baffled. "Intellectual property? I don't see any damn property. Where's it located?"
In any case, Big Kenny was ready for a change-a big change-so he packed up, locked the door to his house, and "moved to Beverly." It was either a daring move or an insane one, or a little of both.
It took awhile to find his way. Nine years, to be exact. That's how long it was between Big Kenny's arrival in Nashville and the first Big & Rich deal.
FROM AMARILLO TO NASHVILLE
Meanwhile-give or take the ten-year gap in our ages-John was growing up in the high plains of Amarillo, Texas. West Texas has a completely different culture from East Texas or South Texas, let alone Culpeper, Virginia. It's flat and windy out there on the Panhandle, and people have a certain way of doing things, the same way they've been doing things for 150 years or so. The men have leathery, windtanned skin, like Clint Eastwood after a long trail ride. They tend to wear ostrich-skin boots (always shined), starched jeans, and some kind of cowboy hat pretty much 365 days a year. They even have rules about hats: No black hats after Memorial Day, and no straw hats after Labor Day. As John likes to say, just look at the hat he's wearing and you'll know what time of year it is.
Big Kenny tends to put all kinds of things on his head, from top hats to three-colored bandannas, but John pretty much wears a cowboy hat. In West Texas, it's what you would call routine. Out there, some kids ride horses to school and hang their hats on the hat tree found in the corner of every classroom. When the bell rings for the next class, they take their hat and hang it on the next hat tree. And of course you never eat with your hat on. It just isn't done.
At John's school, rodeo was an elective. You could go to class and learn how to rope or cut cows. Both of us were raised around cattle, but in the Amarillo area, there were just a few more head. A cattle ranch in Virginia had two or three hundred animals. A feedlot in West Texas might have two hundred and fifty thousand animals at any one time, and if the wind shifts, you can smell that cattle stench a hundred miles away. John claims to like that smell. If an eighteen-wheeler stuffed with cows passes him on the highway, he rolls down the window and takes a big whiff. It reminds him of home. This is how money smelled when he was growing up-not the kind you fold, but the kind that led to food on the table.
John was the oldest of four children, two sisters and a brother. Big Kenny, on the other hand, was the youngest of four siblings, two brothers and a sister. This family-order business is no doubt part of our dynamic, the weird meshing of our two personalities. While Big Kenny's dad raised cattle, John's father, Jim, was (and is) a nondenominational preacher by calling. This was a tough living in those parts, so to make ends meet John's dad worked as everything from a night watchman to a car salesman during the week. John grew up in a trailer on the outskirts of Amarillo, and life got pretty rough sometimes. His family made more than one stop down at the local food bank. Again, two different people, two different life experiences.
John's dad, originally from Pampa, Texas, had aspirations early on in his life to do exactly what John does now. He loved to sing and write songs and play the guitar and would make a habit of performing church songs at weekly services from behind his pulpit. John would often sit beside his dad while he belted out a hymn or gospel tune, and by the age of five or six he was playing alongside. This was the catalyst for John's lifetime in music-watching his dad perform for and inspire the congregation on a Sunday morning.
To this day, John admires his dad for going his own way and never asking the world for permission. He's the kind of unabashed country preacher who rides his Harley to church, attends to his flock, then comes home, sets his King James Bible down on the table, and, as a final gesture, pulls up his pant leg and takes his .32 special out of its ankle strap and puts it away. He's an original.
Today John's dad preaches in Tennessee and lives only a short distance from John. Also nearby are his beloved Granny Rich and Pap Rich, his father's parents. Granny Rich isn't just John's granny. She's everybody's granny.
After his upbringing in Amarillo, John ended up in the Nashville area by default. He moved to Ashland City, thirty miles northeast of Nashville, with his mother, a native Tennessean. He had a chance to go to college on a vocal scholarship but opted instead to try his luck in the "business."
Excerpted from Big & Rich by Big Kenny John Rich Allen Rucker Copyright © 2007 by Baalt, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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