John Rich plops into a chair, asks for two bottles of water and downs them both.
“I’m trying to recover from a trip I just made to Los Angeles that was insanity, 36 hours of absolute insanity,” he says, then goes into a story about drinking with actor Mickey Rourke, who appears with Kris Kristofferson in the video for Rich’s latest hit, Shuttin’ Detroit Down. It’s no secret that Rich, half of the duo Big & Rich, likes to play hard and work hard. His latest project is a solo album, Son of a Preacher Man, out this week.
“That’s who I am,” says Rich, who grew up a preacher’s kid in West Texas. “I’ve got a King James in one hand and a Crown and coke in the other. I think we all know Jesus didn’t turn the water into Dr Pepper.” Shuttin’ Detroit Down may be the fastest-rising song of his career, currently No. 13 on Billboard’s country chart after seven weeks. It expresses his frustration with Washington’s bailout of Wall Street.
“I think it’s a way for people to vent,” Rich says. “It shows what they are thinking so clearly and accurately that they crank that volume knob.” The idea came to him backstage at a concert with ZZ Top. He was thinking that fans — not the CEOs and politicians — are the ones who represent the real America.
“I turned to my friend right before I walked on and said, ‘Remember this line: In the real world they’re shutting Detroit down,’” he recalled.
The 35-year-old singer, who recently married his longtime girlfriend Joan Bush, has the coiled energy of the kid at school that you knew was going to get you into trouble, but you couldn’t stay away.
“John has a really unique personality. He has a way of talking about something and getting you excited about it,” said singer Jason Aldean, who worked with Rich as a songwriter at the same publishing company. “He’s done things that he’s taken a lot of heat for, and then turned around and done things that made him look like a genius.” Indeed, Rich seems to court controversy. He offended gays by speaking out against gay marriage. He’s stumped for Republic candidates (in 2008 he released a song for Senator John McCain called Raisin’ McCain). He scuffled with heavy metal bassist Jerry Montano in a Los Angeles hotel room. He riled an entire Nashville neighborhood by building a huge, incongruous house dubbed the “Villa Rich.” It doesn’t take long to find bashers if you Google his name and check the blogs.
“You find two different kinds of people: People who will lay down on the railroad track for me, and people who want to tie me down to the railroad track,” Rich says. “Hopefully, more people are on my side, and there are. But some don’t like it when a guy as loud and raging as I am comes blasting through town.” Rich’s first solo album, recorded before Big & Rich and after five years with the group Lonestar, was shelved in the late 1990s and released later without much success.
“I was all about the art of it and didn’t realize I was being too brainy with the lyrics, saying stuff that people didn’t care much about,” Rich says.
He decided to do Son of a Preacher Man after his partner, “Big” Kenny Alphin, was sidelined for a year by neck surgery, the result of being hit by a drunken driver in 2001.
With the new disc, he revisits the traditional country he remembers growing up the eldest of four kids in a doublewide trailer in Amarillo, Texas — a twist since Big & Rich give traditionalists fits with their fusion of rap, rock, pop and country.
“What I bring to the Big & Rich equation is country, straight-ahead, hard-core country music. I wanted to make a record like that,” he said. “I had a lot of subjects I wanted to talk about that are personal to me that would never have found their way on a Big & Rich album.” The record isn’t as old school as Rich makes out. He closes with a quirky big band nod to Frank Sinatra called Drive Myself to Drink about a guy who puts a bar in his car.
“You’re probably talking to one of the biggest Frank Sinatra fans on earth,” he says. “One record I want to make before I die is Let Me Be Frank.” Rich has written hits for Faith Hill and Aldean, produced hits for Jewel and Gretchen Wilson, and sung hits with Big & Rich (Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy, Lost in This Moment).
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Throw in his gigs as a judge on Nashville Star and host of Country Music Television’s Gone Country, and it can seem like he’s everywhere.
“John is an artist, so he’s eccentric. He’s a writer, so he’s going to be fiery and passionate and full of contradictions,” said Jewel, who co-produced her 2008 album, Perfectly Clear, with Rich and was a judge with him on Nashville Star. “I think writers, especially, tend to want to feel their emotions because that’s where they write from. He’s certainly that way.” This summer, Rich and Alphin will return to the road as Big Rich and begin work on a new album.
Rich says he’s spent his life wanting to do exactly what he’s doing and has no intention of letting up.
“This is not a hobby. This is not a stepping-stone to something else. This is my destination and all I care to do,” Rich said.
“The last thing I want to do is take a vacation from it.”
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