By Annie Reuter
Heads turned as soon as Big & Rich walked into Johnny Utah’s last Thursday afternoon (Sept. 25). The country duo, best known for their 2004 crossover hit “Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy,” were joining me at the Midtown Manhattan honky tonk to talk about their new album Gravity.
Released just two days earlier, Gravity is also the duo’s first album on their new record label Big & Rich Records.
‘Big Kenny’ Alphin and his longtime bandmate John Rich had no problem meeting up at Johnny Utah’s—it turns out they were already very familiar with the place. As they described it, the club is their favorite place “to get in trouble” when they’re in New York. Me, I simply figured it would be a good place to sit down and chat about Gravity, have a beer and perhaps, if all went well, learn how to two-step. I had high hopes that these two outgoing, fun-loving country stars might be game to teach me.
“It’s really the closest thing to a straight-up country bar you can get,” Rich explains of Johnny Utah’s, after he and Kenny sit down with me at a table in the bar’s back room. “They play country music, there’s a [mechanical] bull, there’s normally live bands in here.”
According to Rich, the last time he was at Johnny Utah’s he was with Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath. “It was right after Celebrity Apprentice, and I dragged him down here. We had a good time.” Rich, who won the 2011 season of Celebrity Apprentice (McGrath was a participant as well), admits that he and McGrath even took over the band that night. McGrath sang “Every Morning” while Rich did “Save a Horse.”
Throughout our chat the guys were very animated, often finishing each other’s sentences. And they weren’t shy about singing a few songs from Gravity, including new single “Look at You,” “Lovin’ Lately” and “That Kind of Town,” a song Rich says includes some of his favorite lyrics.
“Show me where the Bible says dreaming’s a sin/Around here you’re supposed to die in the town you’re born in,” they sing. “If you cheat, if you fight, if you get knocked up/Lord they’ll pin you down and never let you back up.”
“That’s a hardcore lyric,” Rich says. “That’s not a lyric you’re going to see on a lot of modern-day country records, but it’s real. It’s the real stuff.”
The ability to include “hardcore lyrics” like that is one of the benefits of releasing Gravity on their own.
“It’s a lot to gamble when you do it by yourself because you lose the leverage from a big label,” Rich said of releasing the new album independently. “But I would rather lose the leverage and have that freedom than the other way around.”
And freedom is treating Big & Rich very well. During the band’s record release show at Brooklyn Bowl the previous Tuesday (Sept. 23), fans were already singing along to many of the new songs. And that isn’t something the two artists take lightly.
“You never get over the buzz and the rush of being onstage, singing a new song and hearing thousands of people singing it back to you,” Rich says.
The beers arrive (Stella), and the guys vow to only have one each, as they are in the midst of a busy week promoting the new album’s release. That, however, doesn’t keep them from touching upon some heated topics, such as why line dancing in Texas is a no-no and what the U.S. should be doing about ISIS.
Wait, ISIS? It turns out, there’s actually a good reason why that militant Islamic group came up in conversation. The guys explain that, after speaking with Radio.com, Rich is due to chat next with Sean Hannity.
“I’ll be good and lit for Sean Hannity in a little bit,” Rich says, as he role-plays how the interview will go. “‘So John Rich, do you think we’re doing the right thing the way we’re attacking ISIS right now?’ I’m going to go, ‘Let me tell you something, man. Everybody just needs to have a drink and calm down for a minute.’”
Before I could even wonder why he’s telling me all this during an interview about their new record, Big Kenny adds his two cents.
“Exactly. I think we just go over there,” Kenny says. “Those guys seem to have a problem with people who like to drink, play music, have fun and dance with their women in the streets. Maybe we just ought to get a whole lot of beer and go over there, pour it on them and flip them the bird one time.”
And then, Rich remarks, “run like hell.”
Kenny isn’t feeling that last sentiment. “No. I don’t think America is going to be running like hell when it comes to ISIS. I really don’t,” he adds sternly. “This has always been a country that puts a foot down.”
Just as quickly as the topic arose, the two musicians realized they were in danger of derailing the interview, so Rich advised Kenny to talk more about the record because “we could get off on ISIS.”
And it’s easy to see why. Big & Rich have long been huge advocates for U.S. troops, and they take time during every concert to pay tribute to those who serve.
“There’s this one picture I will never forget singing from stage,” Rich says, remembering one particular concert. They were singing their poignant 2006 single “8th of November, about a friend (Niles Harris) who survived four tours in Vietnam, and “there’s a marine, he’s probably 20, 21-years-old. He’s standing there at full attention in front of the stage looking at Big Kenny and I, saluting the stage the entire song. For four minutes he holds attention.”
The song reached the Top 20, and it’s remained popular ever since. “We had no idea that song would become a worldwide iconic song for veterans,” Rich adds. “That song has really grown.”
Another song that continues to get bigger for the duo is “Look At You,” which is currently in the Top 20 of the country singles charts. The song was inspired from Rich’s personal experience with an ex-girlfriend, and it now has him looking at the relationship in a very different light.
“She decided that she was going to come into the bar that she knew that I would be hanging out in, drowning in my sorrows and the breakup of several years with her,” Rich recalls. “She knew exactly where I’d be. She shows up and has bought all new clothes. I don’t know if she had a makeup artist or what. She looked like an absolute movie star. [She] comes walking in and I’m going, ‘Oh my God, how hot does she look!’”
Obviously knowing Rich was watching her, his ex took to the dance floor and proceeded to dance with every guy at the bar.
And this, says Rich, “is where the bridge of ‘Look At You’ comes in. I’m going, ‘Okay. I could start a tab and run it up or close it up and head to my truck. Drive away as fast as I can and forget we never loved.’ I remember being in that spot and I said, ‘Man, I bet there’s a lot of guys that have that same story and a lot of girls who have done that.’ When you write country music you genuinely write from stuff you know. I screwed up. Even though looking back, I didn’t really screw up. But at that time you’re thinking, ‘What did I let go of? How did I mess that one up?’”
When I asked if in that moment he found comfort in knowing one day he could write a song about the album, he gave me a resounding no. All he was thinking of was “I need more shots!”
Since we were talking alcohol again, I couldn’t help but ask Big & Rich what drink best describes Gravity. Their response: a Flaming Dr. Pepper.
“Here’s your Amaretto and beer and you drop it together,” Rich explains. “And you put a little Bacardi 151 on top and you light a match and it goes [motions flame]. They make those here at Johnny Utah’s. I’d say Gravity is a Flaming Dr. Pepper.”
Related: Big & Rich Take the Reins on Gravity
The versatile release includes the aforementioned “Lovin’ Lately,” a duet with Tim McGraw that will be Big & Rich’s next single. The concept for it started with McGraw, in fact; he came to the guys with a title for a song he was hoping to write.
“We were very lucky to have Tim McGraw share with us such a great idea for a song,” Rich says. “He can tell that idea to anybody, and he told it to me and Big Kenny. It was a pretty big responsibility for us to take that and write something great with it. We’ve never been happier to get word back from Tim that he loved it and that he’d sing on it and that we could make it a single.”
Other highlights include the poignant “Thank God for Pain”; “That Kind of Town,” which was written with radio host Gerry House; the feel-good “Rollin’ Along,” which was written with Eric Paslay and has been played by NASCAR; and honky-tonk stomper “I Came to Git Down,” cowritten with Frankie Ballard.
Speaking of honky tonks, that brings us back to the reason we were at Johnny Utah’s to begin with: I’d asked the band to teach me how to two-step. Being from Jersey, I never witnessed two-steppin in action until attending a recent show by Texas group Josh Abbott Band. Since then I’ve been dying to learn, and who better to teach me than a guy from Texas and another from Virginia?
Rich started off with the basics, which included explaining the difference between two-stepping and line dancing. “Anybody can dance by themselves,” Rich says of line dancing. “You’ve got to have something going on to get somebody else to dance with you. It requires a little coordination.”
Which is exactly what I learned. Most importantly, the guy has to lead. And as Rich says, if the guy doesn’t know what he’s doing it’s going to be a train wreck. Lucky for me, I had a good teacher.
“Full step, half step, back. Full step, half step back. That’s all it is,” he recites. “Once you get it down it’s like you’re walking.”
With that said, he grabbed me close (much closer than I had anticipated) and walked me through it while I very timidly tried my best not to step on his fancy cowboy boots.
“John Rich can two-step backwards!” Kenny shouts as Rich twirls me.
“I can two-step anywhere!”
“He’s a good two-stepper,” Kenny asserts. “And you’re doing good. You’ve never two-stepped before? By golly, you look like a natural.”
Big & Rich were not just fun conversationalists, they were great confidence boosters.
Now it was Kenny’s turn. A Virginia native, he showed me his version of the two-step while Rich laughed along.
“You got it! The Big & Rich School of two-step,” Kenny adds.
As Big & Rich said their goodbyes while taking photos with fans and staff at the bar, I couldn’t help but wonder if they’ve ever taught two-stepping before. Surely, Rich wouldn’t be doing this at his next stop with Hannity.
Big & Rich’s new album Gravity is out now.