There are few people out in the world who care enough to truly share themselves with not only their family but also with the world. Big Kenny, one half of the award-winning, platinum-selling duo Big & Rich, is not only fearless about sharing himself with his fans but with the world at large. Big Kenny has used his celebrity to spread a message of love and hope and with his mantra of “Music without prejudice” and “Love Everybody” vibes, he’s done just that. In a remarkable conversation with Roughstock, Big Kenny discusses everything from his experiences in the Sudan to his upbringing to how the internet has made the world smaller and more open to everyone. In the course of our conversation we also discuss his new album The Quiet Times of A Rock and Roll Farm Boy.
Matt B: I’ve lived overseas in ‘third world’ countries like China so I can relate to your experience in Darfur, Sudan. How has that shaped your worldview?
Big Kenny: That’s some life changing stuff. You can’t even imagine the things that you see. You just don’t go there. It’s such a dichotomy from where I was raised in Culpepper, Virginia and what most of my memories are. I hadn’t been a whole lot further outside of those county lines until I moved to Nashville. In the early 1990s I was working on a job site and a friend said “you sing pretty well. You oughta go to Nashville. You know they pay people to write songs down there” and I went “you’re kidding?” And I left and came down to check it out and never went back. And to think over a decade after that I wrote a song that gets recorded and tops the charts and from that song (“Last Dollar”) it becomes part of helping to have a school built for over 500 girls in the middle of the Sudan who most of them have been orphaned by war or come out of slavery. Just some of the most horrorific stuff you could ever imagine. And to think I grew up poor in a lot of ways but in comparison I grew up in glory land. It’s certainly enough to shake the soul a little bit.
Matt B: Yeah, I had a friend who witnessed a few people die and I saw lots of poverty and sickness myself while there and to have people complain about how bad things are in our country, I always feel like saying “you don’t know nothin’ if you think this is bad….”
Big Kenny: Yeah, I’m with you there. We went back to Sudan this year to dedicate the school, the Kungyup School for Girls and they had a Cholera outbreak at the same time so we took a plane of medical pharmaceuticals and supplies specifically for Cholera, like rehydration salts and stuff like that and I saw a little boy in the dirt under a tree with his grandma by his side and to look at him, at any visual, he looked dead. You get beside him and he looked unresponsive. He lost his brother, his mother to Cholera epidemic and we put an IV to help this kid and over the next hour or so the Doctors were helping him and we went about our work with the school and other groups and my wife was there and was proud and happy with her work at the pharmacy (putting it together) and she asked me to come down and take a look and I did. It was about a day and a half later and there was the same boy was standing up. That was a life-changing situation right there because that was my kid. And I sure hope that somebody would be around there to help my child if he needed it.
Matt B: How would you describe your new album The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy?
Big Kenny: I feel completely blessed to be making music and to live where I live and this album is as honest and true a representation of me and where I’m at in my life; the things I want to say and the things I want my kids to have in song forever. And I want my fans to know what I’m about; where I come from and where I plan on goin’. And I hope they are right there with me and my friends continue to grow and grow and we can really take music and not only have the time of our lives with it but do great things with it. So we can see other people’s lives get moved forward in a positive way because of the simple gift I have of playing music.
Matt B: What was it about Big and Rich that made you guys successful as a duo when other artists had failed to find the success you had achieved?
Big Kenny: I think that John (Rich) and I kind of helped to inspire each other to be a little more fearless when it came to our music. And the band that I’m taking out with me on the road, LuvJOi, is a band that came about because of my first record deal [with Hollywood Records] as Big Kenny and I got to travel around he country to find Adam Schoenfeld, the atomic guitar player, Larry Babb and he and Adam have played with John and I over the years, as many fans know, and then we got Justin Tockett back and he’d been producing and playing on his own around here and LuvJOI was kind of the start of all of the [Muzik] Mafia stuff. We were playing a weekly club date at 12th and Porter, a little club here in Nashville and during that time I met John and he was just quite a character and a talent in his own right. He seemed to love all kinds of music like we did and he come up on stage and sing with us or open up for us and he introduced us to Cowboy Troy and John and I were out one night and we met Gretchen Wilson and that’s kinda how it all happened.
I think everyone coming together just helped everybody the confidence to keep tryin’, to keep movin’ forward to bust down the doors to make music without prejudice. I still stand for that in every way, shape or form. I want people to be able to express themselves any way they want to. Music is such a great common denominator. You realize that we all got that similarity and it brings us together.
Matt B: So is that what you’d say about “Music without prejudice” to somebody who didn’t know what it meant?
Big Kenny: It always meant, for me when the mafia started, that no matter what instrument you played, what style of music you sang whether it was country or rock or opera or anything in between; it didn’t matter what language you spoke it or sang it in we were just songwriters who were getting together to share our music with each other and to experiment and to be influenced by all different kinds of music. Music is a good thing that’s kind of the opposite of all the turmoil out there in the world and around us. Music is this great joyful, peaceful, and exciting place we get to go to get a break from the rest of it. Music is this great common denominator, which should have no boundaries to it.
I am really excited about the first track on this album called “Wake Up.” It blows my mind how it ended up. It was written, recorded and videoed inside of a week and by happenstance it has the Blackfoot confederacy drum and vocal tribe, the Blood Indian tribe singin’ on it with me and within that week we were 4 hours north of Calgary filming the video with 10 members of the Blackfoot confederacy and over 60 members of the Blood Indian tribe in their native American tribal dress from babies to the Chief and they prayed over me for two hours and then danced with me and presented me with my Indian name. Then later I’m back in Nashville this spring we hosted the African Children’s choir in Nashville with over a dozen of Nashville’s A-list at the Schermerhorn Nashville Symphony and after seeing how talented they were, I couldn’t help myself but record them for that song as well. So it’s me, all my friends, the Blackfoot and the African Children’s Choir, and possibly so many more that I don’t know about, all singing on this song. It’s the simplest chorus in the world and everybody can sing it together. It moves me every time I see it, hear it, think about it.
So many great things have come from that. That event built another school for the African Children’s Choir. It’s just amazing how a little seed grows into a tree and from that it drops more fruit and keeps multiplying and multiplying. When you can see some of this stuff that you’ve heard about, talked about or dreamed about your whole life come to fruition, it’s just an amazing thing. I’m so blessed to get to play music and as a performer it’s as much a getaway for me as it is for the fans out there listening but then to be able to serve with it and see other people’s lives be changed in a good way really fills you up. It really fills your soul up, man.
Matt B: How did you come to break away from Warner Brothers Records for the release of your new album?
Big Kenny: I’m an artist like everyone else and have a thousand thoughts go through my mind and I’ve been through some stuff and it took a while to get it all figured out. This year I finally got my studio built in my back yard and I’d written a couple hundred songs and I was trying to get my neck healed up from the accident where I got hit by a drunk driver in 2002. I got the studio done and was writing and recording feverishly. I pared 50 songs down to the album that I had this album down to Big Kenny, the quiet times of a rock and roll farm boy. I was under that obligation (w/Warner Brothers for a solo album) and they didn’t know what to do with it or put it out.
These songs mean so much to me and it’s my life’s mission right now, the songs like “To Find A Heart” and I got married, had a kid, and my life was all different all of the sudden. It was like the great hand of the great creator had come down and whacked me into what I am doing. That’s what I mean by the quiet times, for me to get by myself to take a long walk or sit and think about what I wanted to say in my music and lyrics. “To Find a Heart” was something to say to my children and I hope for their children too. I figure if it says something good for my children it will say something good for children everywhere.
Matt: How did you get together with the team that you have with you now?
When I got to the moment I was in my studio, my laboratory as I call it, it’s actually my garage with my shop and finally in Nashville my dream has come true where I can go and lock myself in there and work and think and over the holidays, in my shop with a refrigerator full of ice cold beverages, which is all I ever wanted. I was frustrated at the situation and took out my old s-winged framing hammer with a checkered head and went at an antique table my wife had given me and destroyed it. And then the lyric came to me: “There’s something to be said for living on the inside, there’s something to be said about living so free/hey, hey, hey, free like me.” I came ot the realization that I’m free to do whatever I want to do.
So I started to search for people I loved and enjoyed working with in my career and those I really enjoyed working with to put this music out and they were searching for me at the same time. I think I am one of the first people to be able to get out and work on their own with their own label with all these great teams of people. The folks at Bigger Picture, People at WEA and Universal [publishing] with marketing and publicity people around the country. It’s a totally different situation than being locked in a room and told ‘this is how you’re gonna do it.’ It’s completely flexible and can expand as it grows in a good way and there isn’t anybody working on the project that I know of, that isn’t passionate about it. It was the writing of songs that got me through this crazy time.
It was the writing of songs that got me through a crazy time in my life. This comes out of it and I know there are millions of other people going through the same thing, in some way, shape or form. I’m asking people to get these songs out there. A song like “Less Than Whole” is a dissertation on forgiveness. It’s me saying “why does anyone have to carry that load around life when the greatest gift you can give anyone is to forgive them.” And in my travels I’ve learned that to share the love it can multiply like an apple tree and it can
How is the album different from your big and rich projects?
Big Kenny: It’s absolutely more personal. John and I were writing things that were of common occurrence in our lives at the time, 10 years ago. Now this is allowing me to speak what’s in my heart, an inside look, without anything else affecting that. These are songs that speak specifically about things I wanted to speak about right now. I’m on a mission to make sure everyone hears it. I’m looking forward to the continuation to the unrolling of this whole album. Not only the album but the little things we did around it, to make it cooler and more important, like the album packaging. Instead of doing another jewel case, we invented a cardboard foldable sleeve that holds the CD but when you take the CD out, instead of throwing the sleeve away as trash in a landfill, it is 100% biodegradable, 100% compostable and a 100% flower power because it contains 26 varieties of my favorite perennial wildflower seed. And even if somebody doesn’t know what they’re holding and throw the case out the window the worst thing that’s gonna happen is after a couple of weeks of rain, flowers are gonna grow up by the roadside.
Matt: It’s certainly an awesome idea and while some people have biodegradable case sleeves, I don’t think I’ve heard of the flower angle of it…
Big Kenny: I haven’t seen anyone do it like this yet but I hope people follow me after it. Besides being cumbersome, the plastic jewel cases use up our petroleum recourses or at least burning them up quicker. Just the environmental catastrophes that I’ve seen in our country right now really makes me want to set a better example any way I can, in good stewardship for our children and all of our futures.
Matt B: What makes your single “Long After I’m Gone” the perfect introduction into Big Kenny and the new album?
Big Kenny: As I was finishing the album up, Matt, it was pretty easy to come to the conclusion to release this song first. It was the most descriptive of where I’m at in my life and what I had come from. I wanted people to know a little bit of my history and to be able to bring that song to life with the video and show them the farm, and take it in a positive way that it’s a great memory of the things we do and the love we behind, long after I’m gone and they’re gone. I know my world is better than it could’ve ever been because of what my parents and my community had put into me as I grew up and I hope I can spin things off in a positive way for my kids and their community as they grow up following along with the example that was set for me. It’s just a cool way to show where I came from and the farm that has now been with my family for 8 generations and the stewardship that comes from knowing about the land and where you come from.
Matt B: How has the internet helped spread the news about your album through the video and single and just to let people know you are around?
Big Kenny: I was thinking of that the other day about how the internet is the most incredible invention and advancement of my time. I thought about Einstine and all of those guys who created nuclear energy and part of it was constructive and destructive. I see the world broken up into two major things and that is destruction and creation and I have no use for the destruction part of it but the creation part of it is what brings forth more good, prosperity and happiness for all of us. The internet singlehandedly gives any of us a library and volumes of information immediately at your fingertips. You can get it in the public library and we’ve even brought it to people who haven’t had stuff like this before.
It makes us able to get to tastemaker sites, like yours, where you can turn fans on to new music and tell folks what’s coming out and its creates ease of access to music and entertainment and information at a lower cost. When I was growing up, it was hard to get the newer stuff and I learned of new stuff through the sharing of mixtapes and the internet has made everything so much easier and continues so on a daily basis. I love that it builds on itself on a daily basis, it keeps getting bigger. If somebody wants to see stuff that they wanted to always see but couldn’t’ afford to see themselves, like a mountain, they get the ability to see great places around the world.
People can’t envision themselves in a world they haven’t seen and were raised in intense poverty and violence and stuff they haven’t seen, they can now sit in front of a screen and see the world isn’t all bad or violent. They can see and learn of a better way.
Matt B. You also have the net books now where people are able to connect to the internet for a cheaper price and can see the world around them more and more…
Big Kenny: Yes and mobile phones are the new AM Radio in the sense that the third world countries are able to communicate the way they weren’t before. Instead of putting lines for phones in they just build and build repeaters for service. Technology is making things easier in the world to communicate and be educated.
Matt B: As an artist who understands the power of the internet, how powerful or important is it to you to be able to communicate with your fans via it?
It’s the greatest form of access, for them to get my music and learn of me and my life and it really makes the connection between myself and my fans more close, more intimate. I know that’s what I like to see in the art that I love. I like to get to know them and learn more about them.
Matt B: Do you think that it’s something that separates country music form other forms of music?
Big Kenny: I don’t know if it’s genre-specificor if it’s just something about being fearless of new things and communication? Some people are more willing to share their lives with others and some are more fearful and I choose to live my life without fear. That’s a constant enemy that I’ll do anything to stay away from, to work and live in a fearless way, working to make a quicker, stronger and easier way to connect with my fans. I think we’ve gone through a time of transition in the music industry and it’s moreso for how we deliver our music, our videos and content to the people but I think it is only going to make it easier to make things available, good things, for the people that want it. It’s going to allow artists to be free to create and express, free-up a lot more passion in our fans. I know that my label partners love working on my stuff and would do it for free.
Through passion is the same as when a tree falls in a river and a river eventually finds a way. He who works the hardest can do it and all the tools are there for you for free if you look for it and those who have done what they’ve done are more than happy to share what they’ve learned.
Matt B: Hard work gets you to where you want to go, like me and getting to work in what I want to do, not what I need to do. Work is fun for me.
Big Kenny: That’s it right there, if you get to do that you’re one of the blessed. I don’t ever want to take that for granted that I get to do this and when I go through the tough stuff in my life, I take some time and think about what I have done and how lucky I am, it gets me creative again and thankful. I hope that through my music that I can continue to do the same thing and be there for each other in a great way.
All images appear courtesy of Big Kenny's communitry website.