Take Us to Your Hugest Arena and Fill Us up with Beer

It's only funny until a life-sized cow doll gets hurt: Big & Rich and friend
Courtesy of Big & Rich

Big & Rich
Comin' to Your City
Warner Bros.

1) Big & Rich have a really good steel-guitar player in the band, and a utility guy who plays fiddle and banjo and mandolin, and "Big" Kenny Alphin does sound like Marty Robbins once in a while, and he and John Rich have written straightforward honky-tonk tunes for Gretchen Wilson, but this whole thing about them being a country band--that's not really true. They're a Southern pop-rock act with country flourishes and a knack for juxtaposition. Hip-hop beats plus banjos. Vaguely vaudevillian anti-Enron novelties with Boots Randolph-style saxophone solos in the middle. That sort of thing.

Also a knack for demographics and marketing. Knowing they were too corny for most rock palettes, they sold themselves to the sort of country fan who also likes Nelly or Kid Rock or Metallica. There are a lot of people out there like that.

The band's motto is "country music without prejudice," which turns out to mean something similar to "country music without country music," but it's still my favorite musical slogan since "the only band that matters." What we have here is a hugely popular red-state band that preaches in favor of tolerance and against abstinence (they're Christians of some sort, but they party) and claims to lead a "freak parade"--which seems like a good thing to have around these days. Even if their rebel act is a put-on.


2) The group's influence has naturally yielded mixed results--the often great Wilson; Miranda Lambert, a relatively tame (but listen to her psychotic single "Kerosene") yet promising (listen to it again) Gretchen follower; Jason Aldean, whose hit anthem of rural hell-raising, "Hicktown," appears to have been made under the influence not of moonshine but malternative beverages (two bottles)--but Big & Rich have helped big-money country reemphasize its rowdy, impious side.


3) "Comin' to Your City," "Soul Shaker," and "Jalapeño" from the group's new album, Comin' to Your City, are the sort of songs one writes when preparing to tour sports stadiums. In this case that's a good thing, on account of Big & Rich being the best arena-rock band since Guns 'N Roses (check out the Axl-ized delivery of the word "chain" on "Soul Shaker"). Of course they're only part-time arena rockers, but still. Regular rockers not on the oldies circuit and not wearing cowboy hats have largely abandoned this sort of thing--loud, non-aggressive, unserious, self-aware but unironic throng-pleasers--which is another reason I'm glad to have Big & Rich around.


4) Big & Rich aren't nearly as freaky as they think they are, but they are kind of queer. To wit: Two of the three above-mentioned forays into supermacho arena rock include disco breakdowns.


5) Much of Big & Rich's music is silly and junky and calculated, and there will always be some middlebrow sourpuss nearby to dismiss such things, some of which deserve dismissal and some of which are the nectar of Western industry. Well, when I was a boy, I came across my share of know-it-all older brothers and soporific faux-boho tastemakers, the sort of folks who'd curse and spit at the mention of the Monkees or Jerry Reed or AC/DC or New Edition.

And where are those people now? Dead! Most of them, I suppose, are still alive, but some, surely, are dead. And yet my New Edition greatest-hits record still sounds fantastic. And in 20 years, so will this Big & Rich album. (Well, most of it.) Seriously, come over to the pad around then and I'll prove it. Call in advance.


6) But "Never Mind Me," one of my favorites on Comin' to Your City, is a pretty, mid-tempo R&B tune about heartbreak, and not silly or junky at all. (Perhaps calculated. What isn't? This is, after all, popular music.)


7) I'm not sure if the melodic resemblance between "Never Mind Me" and Richard and Linda Thompson's "Just the Motion" is coincidental, but B&R's first single, "Wild West Show," contained the phrase "shot out the lights," a variant of "shoot out the lights," the name of the album on which "Just the Motion" appears. I bring this trivia up in an attempt to spark interest in my new three-pronged tribute band, Big & Richard and Linda Thomson Twins.


8) Speaking of somewhat unexpected associations, Kenny's high harmony vocals on "Leap of Faith" are obviously indebted to Thom Yorke.


9) Big Kenny is the sound-collage-lover in the group, the putative toker. "Blow My Mind" is his drug-referencing psychedelic showcase. It sounds a bit like R.E.M.'s cover of the Clique's "Superman" and a bit like the Stone Roses or Charlatans U.K. I like it fine, but I'm not crazy about it. The other night, in the interest of journalistic exploration, I listened to it stoned. It didn't improve much.


10) In Big Kenny's heaven, Sgt. Pepper's is playing, but it has been remixed by "Mutt" Lange.


11) "Caught Up in the Moment" is about rich people having impetuous sex and falling in love on an airplane. It's sort of like "Life in the Fast Lane" except happier and without the coke. Also includes a gratuitous but charming reference to "Hot in Herre" by Nelly, who did that duet with Tim McGraw, who's done better rockers than this.


12) The last official song on the album, "8th of November," is about the Vietnam War. Fittingly, it's very long and not good.


13) Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich's occasional rapper Cowboy Troy, and 4,000 strings join in for the "bonus" track, "Our America." Angling for a Super Bowl halftime gig, the team harmonizes zestfully on the national anthem, splicing in their own recitations of passages from the Constitution (U.S.), the "I Have a Dream" speech, and whatnot. It's actually even worse than that sounds. Convenient having the real clunkers at the end, though.


14) Favorite lyric: "If you want a bang in your yin yang/If you want a little zing in your zang zang/If you want a little ching in your chang chang, come along." That's precisely what I wanted! How'd y'all know?

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