Radio Gaga

As of this writing, Gretchen Wilson's Here for the Party (see "Radio Gaga," July 14, 2004) is the No. 3 album in the country, and Big & Rich's ass-whumping Horse of a Different Color is No. 6. Big and Rich's John Rich (who produced and helped write Wilson's album) and Big Kenny are ringleaders of Muzik Mafia, a loose affiliation of singer-songwriters whose material tends to be out of sync with Nashville but is clearly not out of sync with public taste. While neither Here nor Horse ventures into entirely unexplored spheres in country music, their one-two punch feels nearly epochal. This is mainstream country that doesn't think its rock influences should be limited to Skynyrd and the Eagles, doesn't think that Shania is the devil but knows that Hank is still king (more or less), doesn't think the idea of hip-hop influenced country is inherently novel, and doesn't think that a fondness for God and small towns should preclude vaguely homoerotic album packaging (Big and Rich) or lyrical nods to Kid Rock (Wilson) and Prozac (B&R).

"Wild West Show," Big & Rich's first hit, lets spaghetti-western guitar, pedal steel, and R. Carlos Nakai-style flute hover wraithlike over a large and not destitute flank of '80s-style drums. Meanwhile, the boys sing prettily about a love feud, using a string of American Indian references both dopey and possibly gay ("Feeling like Tonto, riding a Pinto, trying to chase the Lone Ranger down") and hip ("We'll smoke a peace pipe"). Award: best American Indian-exploitation single since Michael Murphy's "Geronimo's Cadillac."

John Rich was previously big and rich as vocalist and bassist with MOR country group Lonestar, whose recent REO Speedwagon-esque ballad "Let's Be Us Again" is precisely why we need Big & Rich. But "Mr. Mom," Lonestar's latest, is a likable, toe-tapping hummer in which a working Joe gets laid off, switches roles with his better half, and suddenly discovers how much work child rearing and domestic management really is (someone should have made note of this!). The lyrics are somewhere between sensitive guy and patronizing dope, but when they're simply flustered they're funny and fluid: "Pampers melt in a Maytag dryer/Crayons go up one drawer higher." Award: best Michael Keaton-related (could-be) hit since Prince's "Partyman."

But "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," Big and Rich's more recent and similarly anything-goes single, shoots all the competition to some outer circle of hell or Nashville. Here B&R mix metal guitar, a banjo that quotes "Secret Agent Man," a fiddle that sounds like turntable scratches, a lead vocal that finds room to sing about "bling blinging" and rap about "gigging frogs," and a group-shout chorus worthy of "I Love Rock and Roll," which Big & Rich clearly do. Award: best song ever.

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