After dalliances in the 90s with Country artists like Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Mindy McCready and Trisha Yearwood, a seismic change occurred for me in 2004 with the release of three albums. Keith Urban’s ‘Days Go By’, Sugarland’s ‘Twice the Speed of Life’ and Big & Rich’s ‘Horse of a Different Colour’ found me entranced by this new, modern sounding Country music that seemed to have more in common with rock than with steel guitars. The latter, a bombastic, middle-fingered gesture to the Nashville establishment changed my perception of what Country music could be with its ‘big, black rapping cowboys’ and ‘Two foot Freds’. The MusikMafia, a group of artists championed by John Rich and Big Kenny were Country fans and Country musicians that might well have existed on the fringes of the industry if it hadn’t been for the duo’s patronage.
Shooting from the hip and loud and proud, John and Kenny went on to produce some crazy, killer tunes but always seemed to be kept at arm’s length by the suits. For every traditional song like ‘8th November’ there was a ‘Jalapeno’ and for every hit single or radio success there was an unsuccessful follow up. Dalliances with Wyclef Jean, John Legend and Bon Jovi saw them reaching out beyond the genre at a time when that wasn’t the done thing and it was no surprise that they walked away from their recording contract after the ‘Hillbilly Jedi’ album and set up their own record label.
With no accountants telling them who they could be and what they could do the genre was braced for ‘Big & Rich mark II: The Extreme Years’, but guess what happened? First, with debut independent release, ‘Gravity’ and then with this album, ‘Did it for the Party’, they matured, they grew up and produced two very mainstream, very radio friendly albums and became part of the establishment themselves! ‘Gravity’ yielded their first two back-to-back consecutive radio top ten’s EVER in ‘Look at You’ and ‘Lovin’ Lately’, so life is good where the programmers are concerned and Country music itself has changed. Once, Big and Rich were pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable but the likes of Sam Hunt at el have left them behind. Indeed, if you look at their ‘related artists’ section on Spotify you’ll see them linked to names such as Trace Adkins, Rodney Atkins, John Anderson and Phil Vassar – names from the 90’s who have transcended commercial Country into their own special, ‘legends’ bracket – revered for what they once did as opposed to what they might be doing now. This is a tough part of the Venn diagram for Big & Rich to be in and to be honest they will be uneasy bedfellows as they are much more commercially viable than all of those aforementioned acts. ‘Did it for the Party’, however, is their most safe, smooth and middle of the road album to date – which is not a bad thing. It is chock full of radio hits and quirky lyrics, the trademark dual harmonies are still there and the magic that happens when Kenny and John sing together is still strong but the hurricane that once lived inside them has been downgraded to something much more sedate as they transition from gun-toting troublemakers to wiser, elder statesman, content to let the kids play whilst they impart wisdom from the front porch.
What is apparent on listening to ‘Did it for the Party’ is that Big and Rich’s ability to write a radio-friendly hit single is stronger than ever. Album opener, ‘California’, a song that first found a home with Tim McGraw, is a perfect, up-tempo driving song. Echoes of the 80’s and The Eagles abound, a sound that is relatively new for Big & Rich but that suits them a lot. ‘Did it for the Party’ is another hit-in-waiting and sees the duo taking on the role of elder statesmen for the first, but not the last, time on the album. It’s a nostalgic song, looking back on their wilder years with fondness and a cheeky wink whilst ‘Smoke in her Eyes’, a sort of unofficial follow up to John Anderson’s ‘Straight Tequila Night’, contains the sort of smooth melodies and sing-a-long chorus that radio was invented for.
The song with the most commercial potential on ‘Did it for the Party’ is ‘Turns Me On’, a sort of early 80’s Meat Loaf ‘Bad Attitude’ era tune with serious Jim Steinman overtones and a great synth sound underpinning the driving beat. John and Kenny’s harmonies excel on this one and it begins a run of songs on the album that see the boys experimenting with a few different sounds as they leave the more commercial songs behind.
‘Wake Up Wanting You’, built around a lazy, 70’s Faces-style guitar riff, would sit at home on a Rod Stewart album whilst ‘No Sleep’, a song that is actually funkier than the one following it on the album called ‘Funk in the Country’ might well be a John Mayer song in disguise! The aforementioned ‘Funk in the Country’ tries a little too hard in ramming the ‘country boys can funk’ message down our throats for me whilst ‘No Sleep’ is cleverer and more nuanced in its message and intention.
More Eagles-esque vibes can be found on ‘The Long Way Home’ and ‘Freedom Road’ towards the end of the album. Both songs are relatively acoustically driven, middle-of-the-road type songs with delicate vocals and smooth harmonies. ‘Freedom Road’, in particular, might well have a life of its own outside of the album if the boys felt brave enough to send it to radio although Richard Marx might well wonder how they managed to steal it from him!
Nowhere is the ‘elder statesmen’ vibe more in evidence than in the closing two songs on ‘Did it for the Party’. ‘My Son’ and ‘Lie, Cheat or Steal’, the first sung by John Rich and the latter by Big Kenny, see them adopting a sort of Johnny Cash style and persona as they impart wisdom to friends, families and fans. Simple structures and heartfelt lyrics wrapped in their trademark vocals leave the listener in no doubt as to where the boys are in their lives these days – husbands, fathers, mentors and guides – that is the Big and Rich of 2017 and fair play to them for writing from the heart rather than writing from a non-authentic viewpoint.
Perhaps the only two songs on ‘Did it for the Party’ that hark back to the ‘Horse of a Different Colour’ days are ‘Congratulations (You’re A Rock Star)’ and ‘We Came to Rawk’. As you might envisage from the titles, both channel a little bombast, the former – a scathing attack on celebrity culture, particularly, is a loud song full of raucous vocals and the type of inventiveness that saw them hit big back in 2004 whilst ‘We Came to Rawk’, similar to ‘Comin’ to Your City’ from the album of the same name, is a concert opener in waiting. Both will give long-time fans of the band ‘all the feels’ as we remember what it was like when Big & Rich were ‘the most dangerous (Country) band on the planet’!
‘Did it for the Party’ is probably Big and Rich’s most consistent album since their debut. There is a flow to it and a binding feel that they haven’t always captured in the studio. The songs fit together superbly and the track-listing is spot on, largely segmented into three separate parts: Commercial singles, experimental sounds, Johnny Cash & Eagles style wisdom. Long-time fans of the band will find lots on here to delight and please but it is newer fans or fans of more radio friendly, traditional Country that might be pleasantly surprised at how the duo have changed and grown. The hell-raising, middle fingered days of yore have been replaced by a worldy wisdom and dignity that, whilst might come as a bit of a surprise, seems to suit them well as they transition into keepers of the Country flame – something that even they might not have seen coming back in 2004!
James Daykin (@rockjames)