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Visiting Cookie Town with Big & Rich’s Big Kenny – An Interview



There’s no one else in country music quite like Kenny Alphin. Known for his top hat and showy, sometimes outrageous stage attire, the “Big” half of multi-Platinum duo Big & Rich is striking out on his own with a November 10th collection titled The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy, an album that explores themes of healing, forgiveness and purpose in “big picture” way. A Big Kenny way, that is.

Kenny’s songs are melodic and flowing, his lyrics poetic. In other words, they’re a perfect representation of the man himself, someone who, in the course of a conversation, is prone to change topics at a moment’s notice, recite a bit of poetry or break into song.

No, calling him a hippie wouldn’t be far off the mark. A fervent opponent of a method of coal mining that removes whole mountaintops, and a strong environmentalist, Kenny employed a bit of flower power for the packaging of Quiet Times…. Not only is the album’s packaging made from recycled material, it’s 100% compostable and can be planted—yes, planted. Supposedly, a selection of perennial wildflowers will begin to grow about 2-3 weeks after planting.

And, as you’ll see in our exclusive interview with him, he’s nothing if not a free spirit. But if there’s one thing that’s true about this colorful figure, it’s that no single label can accurately, fully describe him. “Call me a hippie, call me a farm boy, call me a construction worker, call me a humanitarian, call me a producer, call me a songwriter, call me a Virginian, call me an American, call me a child of the universe,” he says.

After all, he’s the kind of guy who will take three airplanes of supplies and support to Africa, the kind of guy who will go out of his way to help a talented musician get some time in the spotlight, the kind of guy who believes…

Well, maybe the best description is just, “the kind of guy who believes.”

JIM MALEC: Big Kenny, how’s it going man?

BIG KENNY: Jim Malec, how are you brother?

JM: Great, man. I hear from your publicist that you’ve been talking quite a bit today.

BK: I’ve been talking to a lot of folks today. It’s been a good opportunity to get out the good word about The Quiet Times Of A Rock And Roll Farm Boy.

JM: A few months ago I had the pleasure of speaking with your buddy John Rich. I asked him a question, and his answer was, “You’d have to ask Kenny.” So now I’m going to ask Kenny: What the hell does “Green green grass and a rubber Russian bimbo” mean?

BK:It just rhymed really good! (Laughing, Big Kenny begins reciting the lyrics as poetry).

Green green grass and a rubber Russian bimbo
No one’s got a name or a brain for the scarecrow
How can he believe what he sees on the TV
Nothing but extreme over-executed fantasy
Happy dancing feet down the street from the corner
Some may say he’s silly some may say that he’s a loner
How can you explain he’s got a name nobody knows it
Did anybody ever stop and offer him a Prozac

It was kinda just a really quick analogy of something I saw going on in the world at one time. There used to be this man near my apartment complex that was always kinda crossin’ the road and carryin’ an umbrella and wavin’ it. He was just always walkin’ around, you know? And I was just kinda thinking about, you know, did anybody ever stop and say to that guy, “Hello?” Or even ask him what his name was? And he was just, probably, if I had to guess, he was crazy and just happy. Happy to be there. So I was just writin’ something crazy and happy about that.

JM:That’s the thing about you Big Kenny–behind every song there is a great story just waiting to be told.

BK:There is a crazy story behind every song. There’s something that every one of them has meant to me personally, something about where they came from. And Quiet Times, you know, I called the album that because I was at a place in my life where, because of an injury and where I’d put myself, and because of what my desires were and where I’d come to—finding love and having a family in my world—I made myself take some time to be quiet, and reflect, and pray, and contemplate and write the notes to the stuff I really wanted to say in song. That way, I would end up with music that I was that passionate about and that it become important for me that everybody heard it.

I wanted to make that kind of music so I could say “I gotta go sing this stuff.” I wanted to feel like that for a long time. So I wrote a whole lot of songs. I had a whole lot of thoughts. I recorded a whole lot of music, ‘cause over three and a half years I finished up this studio in my back yard. And it’s just like my farm now; I can be home workin’ and my kids can come in and see me play and work and be with me. I can go have lunch with them, just like my dad did with me.

You can see all that in the video for “Long After I’m Gone.” You can see right where I was raised, and see my kids playin’ in the same grass where my daddy played with me. You’ll see more of that on some of the other things we did to go along with the album. We visualized the whole thing, the whole experience. We took all ten of the songs, and I put together a mish-mash and put ‘em in a sequence and I listened to it and visualized all 39 minutes and 25 seconds of it with my team here at Glowtown…

Glowtown. It’s yo town. It’s Glowtown records.

Nashville’s such a creative place, man. It’s a real beacon, a lighthouse of creativity here. And I hope I can do some stuff to inspire people to come and learn from all the talent that keeps pouring into this community. And then, maybe they’ll go out and spread some good music and good songs, you know, not only just here. We should take country music to every other country there is.

JM: That’s high praise for the creativity of Nashville. When the rest of the world looks in at what Nashville is producing, do you think that creativity is apparent? Because you’re right—there is immense talent in Music City. But I’m not convinced the cream of that talent and that creativity always rises.

BK: At times it does. At times, different places and cultures in the world rise up. I believe that Nashville, Music City, is a community on the brink. It’s been bubbling for a long, long time. It’s getting’ ready to rise up in a really crazy way, you know, and enjoy the respect of the rest of the musical world in a way that is unbelievable. But it’s believable to guys like us who know that you can go out any night of the week in Nashville and see music in any kind of format you wanna see it in. You know, when I moved here in 1994, the first night I got into town I didn’t know anybody but I went to a show and my jaw dropped to the floor. I was so awe-inspired—and still am—by the talent you see everywhere.

From where I came from, I’d never seen anything like that. I’d hardly even seen anybody sit around and play guitar and sing.

JM: Let’s talk about that place where you come from. Because there seems to be a common thread that runs through a lot of the music you made with LuvjOi, your previous solo record Live a Little, and now Quiet Times…. It has this very colorful, almost hippie vibe and message. I’m curious as to how you got from that farm, from that very rural place where you grew up, to the very eclectic and almost experimental place where you are artistically. You’re pushing boundaries and you seem to be showing a disregard for genre classifications while freely assimilating various styles into your music.

BK: I don’t have a disregard. I have a respect for it. And that respect is, I can only be honest and truthful of what I am and where I am at any given time. This album is a pure reflection of that. I finally got to a point in my life where I was given the confidence and the faith and the bravery to figure out a way to get it out. Because I knew I had experienced enough stuff musically, that I kinda had put out a lot of records, and now I had something that was really speaking from my heart and from my soul. I’m exposing that. And that’s a big place to get to as an artist. Not many artists every really get there. And I’ve worked hard and diligently to come to a place like that, where I’ve got songs that mean a whole lot to me, that I wrote for a reason.

Call me a hippie, call me a farm boy, call me a construction worker, call me a humanitarian, call me a producer, call me a songwriter, call me a Virginian, call me an American, call me a child of the universe. I don’t care what you call me, just call me to dinner. ‘Cause I get hungry just like everybody else, every day. Just like kids, you know? Children are dependent on their parents. We’re all the same, everywhere. Love everybody.

JM: There aren’t many country singers who would describe themselves as a child of the universe.

BK: There aren’t many country singers who have seen all the things that I’ve seen. Maybe they’re at a different place. I think, you know, Johnny Cash, in some way, shape or form, spoke that to me. I think Patsy Cline, in some way, shape or form, spoke that to me. They may not have said it exactly like that, but…

I’ve been saying it for years on these brass necklaces I’ve been handing out to people. They say, “The sky is my ceiling, the ground is my floor, and the world is our one big happy home.”

By the sweat of our brows
and the strength of our hearts
livin’ is a day worth dying for.

JM: That speaks pretty loudly. So now let’s talk about some Quiet Times…. There’s a lot of melody on this album. It’s nice to hear someone actually singing on a country record, when so much of what we hear lately is very rapid-fire, very rhythm-based. As a songwriter, how important is melody to you?

BK: I am so appreciative of you saying that, brother. I can’t tell you how much that means. You’re the first person that I’ve interviewed with that has come right down and said ‘melody’.

Melody is incredibly important to me. Songs speak to me first by the feeling I get from ‘em. It’s just something that sounds good about it. And then it’s the melody that draws me in to it. That beautiful use of all these notes we have that we can lay together in so many infinite ways to make such beautiful sounds. And then it kinda lays this lyric out to you in a way that makes it so pleasant to hear. Melody is incredibly important to me. And musicality is incredibly important to me. I wanted this record to represent the musicality that I’ve grown up with. You know, everything that makes up Big Kenny and The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy. That’s what I am. I grew up with rock and roll and I grew up as in-the-country as anyone I’ve ever met.

Yet, I’ve experienced the rest of the world. I’ve experienced the cities. I’ve seen a lot of it. I don’t feel as scared to step outside my county line anymore. You know, to go boot scootin’ outside the county line. I feel like my neighbors are out there everywhere. Everybody’s the same. We’ve all got family and loved ones. And we all have to eat. We need food and clean water. And we all love music. We all love music.

So, if I can include even a taste of musicality that might be familiar enough that it might pull in a new friend and help them understand what my country music has represented to me, then that’s a glorious thing. That’s a good thing.

JM: This is a very positive, upbeat album. Which isn’t surprising, because you’re a very positive, energetic guy. You have this really great aura that surrounds you. How do you maintain such a positive outlook, and are there ever days when you wake up and just want to write something really depressing?

BK: Hey, there are days when I wake up and wanna go sit in a corner in my closet and not do anything else. There was a whole several weeks last winter when I didn’t know why I’d made all this music, why I had worked so hard, built this studio, laid eight miles of wire in every direction and put this environment together to make this music. I did all that, and I didn’t know how I was gonna be able to get it out. I didn’t know if I was even gonna be able to. That can give a person a very sickening feeling. It’s like putting the Mona Lisa in a closet and lockin’ it up and not lettin’ anybody see it. That’s the worst thing you can do to a creative person.

I want people to see it. When you see my face on the cover on the front of this album, I’m screaming in a joyful way because I want people to hear it. Listen to this! Listen to this! And some of the songs, they might come out in a positive way now, but they didn’t necessarily come from the most positive place. I mean, “Less Than Whole” is a discussion of forgiveness, and when you come to that realization that it’s even better to give it to other people than it is to get it yourself. And if we give it to each other we don’t even have to worry about getting it. You’re gonna, no matter what.

“Go Your Own Way” is a discussion of…I was sitting over here with Ben Moody [formerly of Evanescence and currently lead guitarist for We Are The Fallen] and we wrote that after we spent some time talking about how people can get in toxic relationships sometimes. Nobody deserves to be abused in any way, shape or form. And you know, if a relationship gets like that, somebody should just walk away from it. Go another way. We should be trying to pave each other’s way in flowers…

So, there’s a lot of real hard stuff that right now comes out in this joyful way of song, but came from some tough places. “Free Like Me,” you know, in those weeks that I had myself out there…fortunately, my wife had given me an old table to antique for her, and I pulled out my old framing hammer and proceeded to help antique that table. I worked on it and just sat there with just me and my thoughts. And thus came forth “Free Like Me.”

When I’m in these walls
I say anything, anything I want to
‘cause if I ain’t feelin’ good inside
how can I feel alive?
I’ll say anything, anything I want to
There’s something to be said for living on the inside
There’s something to be said for living so free
Hey hey hey everybody

(Now singing)
Say free like me! Oh oh, free like me!

Wow, what a glorious thought that is.

JM: Amen!

BK: Man, I thought I’d been shackled and enslaved! The pictures I was seeing were some of the horrific stuff I’d seen around the world man, but I’d come to the conclusion that I could not only affect stuff here in my own back yard, but that I could affect things anywhere. And anybody could do that if they just stepped outside the shackles of life that try to hold us back. Everything from carrying the burden of unforgivness to just knowing that you have that great gift that you can just decide to be happy. The only thing you have to worry about in the next second is just, “I’m gonna make a decision to be happy.”

I won’t let my mind get contaminated with all these negative things that keep trying to pull me down and pull me under water and drown me. You know, it’s just no good. It’s just no good for the soul, and I’m just not gonna go there on this album. I was inspired, from the beginning of this, to write stuff for my children and songs that could speak to them for a long time in a really good way. I wanted to write stuff they could share with their friends. The last track on here is “Share The Love.” It’s just saying, hey, we all have it, and there’s always gonna be enough if we share the love.

Just wait ‘till you see the visualization of that. It’s just absolutely stunningly awesome. And “Free Like Me,” you know, in that period of time, I came to the realization in myself that nothing could stop me from doing, from putting one foot in front of the other and getting out there and making my music and getting it out some way. I would figure it out. The only person who was gonna do it was me. And I was gonna do it the way I wanted to, with the people I love, admire and respect–and who were also passionate about the things and music that I’m passionate about.

We were all working on this project and it was just like a big pirate ship. We all worked together. We all did it together. It’s like some advanced version of the MuzikMafia or something. Music without prejudice! Love everybody!

JM: I’m glad you mentioned pirates. I was hoping we’d get a chance to go there. How did Willie Nelson come to record “The Bob Song,” and what did that mean to you?

BK: Aw man, that was just…having Willie Nelson…I’m playing with Willie this weekend, dude! That’s so cool. My first show as Big Kenny is gonna be with Willie Nelson. I don’t know how that happened…

Yes I do! They called us. They booked us. They came to us to come play this. They came to me, to Big Kenny. I’m taking LuvjOi with me. So Big Kenny and LuvjOi, reunited. That’s what we’re doing between now and the end of this year.

Anyway, “The Bob Song.” It was crazy. How it came about was I ran into Kenny—little Kenny, Kenny Chesney—down in the Islands. I had my family and a couple other families with me and we were down in the Virgin Islands and I ran into him. We ended up just getting together and singin’ songs and having a good time and breaking bread. I was playin’ songs and he heard that one and just loved it. That was right before he was gonna be going in and producing an album for Willie. Later on, Kenny called and asked if Willie could cut it on the album. I’m was like, “are you kidding?” Then, they called me in the day they were tracking it, and I got to go in and actually sing on it with him. And that’s just cool, you know. That’s another one of those things—the love I leave and my wildest dreams will live on long after I’m gone. That was one of my wildest dreams, man. I got to record a song with Willie Nelson, produced by Kenny Chesney. That’s neat.

JM: What ever happened to old Pirate Bob? What’s he doing these days?

BK: They’re all still hard at work, him and all the pirates of Cookie Town, constantly building and creating that beautiful world that they live in and are exploring in the great adventure of music and life.

We are the pirates of Cookie Town
Bohemian Vikings, we live of our likings
and laugh when the sun goes down
we’re brothers and sisters of bravery
and robbers of love
we live by the heart and the stars up above
we’ll laugh, drink, play music, party with you
cry with you, whatever you need
‘till we fall down. ‘Cause we’re the pirates of Cookie Town

It’s a great world that I’ve been creating for years. Bob is still out there swinging from his tree, and all his other buddies are swinging from their tree.

You swing from your tree, I’ll swing from mine
you have you lemons and I’ll have my limes
it’s funny, we all act like monkeys sometimes
you swing from your tree, and I’ll swing from mine

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword, Slant and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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