Pop culture perpetually lags behind the times. Despite the cherished myth of a creative vanguard ever nudging the public forward, the acceptance of "edgy" pop often simply ratifies shifts in mainstream consciousness. So give John Rich and "Big" Kenny Alphin a hearty backslap for positioning 2004's Horse of a Different Color, their debut album d/b/a Big & Rich, as just such a validation of our national mood. "I know there's got to be/A few hundred million more like me/Just tryin' to keep it free," they sang on "Rollin' (The Ballad of Big & Rich)." Heartened by the duo's "country music without prejudice" tag and their goofball Nashville DOR ecstasy, Democratic fans of mainstream country and even leftier kin like me counted ourselves among that number.
Such grand coalitions are hard to maintain. In reality, there were closer to 2 million more like John and Kenny, according to Soundscan. And in truth, the duo's primary selling point wasn't that they were more progressive than Brooks & Dunn—it's that they were funnier and often funkier. But as always, what spoiled the party is success. In the year since Horse of a Different Color, Nashville has remade itself somewhat in the duo's image, with the occasional grisly result—neither Rich nor Alphin wrote it, but Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" is their fault. And the pair's extensive song doctoring for fellow stars has evidently exhausted them. Compared to All Jacked Up, the tepid follow-up from B&R affiliate Gretchen Wilson, Comin' to Your City (Warner Bros.) is only a slight disappointment—but that's not saying much in their favor.
Problem is, John and Kenny are trying too hard. Their excess of effort can be endearing, as can their overflow of charm and good will in the service of—well, what exactly does this surfeit service? "I'm just tryin' to have a little fun for all the ones who can't," they explained last year on "Kick My Ass" (as in "Why does everybody want to . . . ?"). This time, they lead with a deliberately cartoonish statement of purpose: "Somebody's got to be unafraid/To lead the freak parade." Fair enough, and fun enough—yet aside from impossible moments of what-the-fuckery like "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy," the real strokes on Horse of a Different Color were low-blood-pressure specials like the underachieving "Big Time." On Comin' to Your City, though, Big & Rich consistently out-wacky themselves: The whirlwind "Caught Up in the Moment" quotes "Hot in Herrre," observes a midflight initiation into the "You-Know-What Club," and ends at a Vegas altar presided over by an Elvis impersonator.
Big & Rich are smart to make much ado about their eclecticism—the self- promotional shtick is half the fun. Yet by post-Shania standards, this music has never been as outrageous as advertised. "Jalapeno" is a giddy shout-along, "20 Margaritas" is Tex-Mex two-step at its most wedding-ready, and "Soul Shaker" manages to be generic in several genres at once. Partying white adults, who've historically never objected to a little drunken cornball mayhem, may never even realize they've joined a revolution. That said, damn me if the fiddles' knack for consistently mimicking a disco string section shouldn't keep Mutt Lange awake till dawn. On Comin' to Your City's title track, the strings bound off a canted bass line for a break so Chic-like that wheeling through unhip burghs like Cincinnati and Canton sounds half as fun as they insist. Besides, what red-blooded hetero stud wouldn't want to swig moonshine with swimsuit model Jessica White? She's smokin'.
And, incidentally, black. Like most white liberals, Big & Rich would like to make clear that they're not bigots, thank you very much, and are, in fact, curious about African-American culture. And like most white liberals, they don't always know exactly what to do about that. "The whole color thing never made sense to me," they admitted last time on "Love Train" (theirs, not the O'Jays'), and as rousing as Cowboy Troy's cameos were on the debut, I don't miss him here—Big & Rich's embrace of the black Southern rapper sometimes smacked unavoidably of summa-my-best-friends-ism. The intro to "Filthy Rich" even seems to acknowledge the nature of their showboating. "Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see the big black rap-ping cowboy," the hucksters yap through a megaphone. "And take a peek at the original cowboy—Stevie Wonder." (I don't know what that last bit's all about either.)
But Big & Rich save their big dash across the color line till the end. Kris Kristofferson intones a solemn introduction to "8th of November." A tribute to the members of a black airborne unit that fought in Vietnam, it's about as far from sententious as a Nashville salute to heroes can manage. But the coda that follows it reminds us that racism isn't this country's sole shortcoming. "Our America" is a mash-up of the U.S. national anthem with various documents of patriotic sentiment—the Constitution, MLK, and, most importantly, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance that hammers home the "under God." Though I'm not supposed to be so intolerant as to object, Their America sounds uncomfortably familiar—just one more indication that a contemporary Southern strategy wouldn't need to sully itself with racist resentment. There will always be Jesus to divide us.