Educated blackjack — that's the daily gamble taken by Kenny Alphin and John Rich of country duo Big & Rich.
After 12 years signed to Warner Music Nashville, the men asked out of their record deal in 2014 to independently release their album "Gravity," in stores now. They weren't unhappy at Warner Music Nashville — but they recorded "Gravity" without telling the label. When they turned it in, the men found out that because of scheduling it might take up to a year for their music to make it onto the market. Alphin said they weren't willing to "sit on the sidelines for that long."
John Esposito, president and CEO of Warner Music Nashville, understood and, Rich said, "graciously" let them leave their contract and take their music with them.
"Kenny and I both said, 'Thank you,' " Rich said, strumming guitar in a room behind his bar at his house on Love Circle. "At the same time, it was scary because you lose the leverage and the power of a major record label."
The gamble paid off. Now the duo that turned heads in 2004 with its genre-bending "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" has taken back the reins and relaunched its career on its own terms.
"Look at You," Big & Rich's first independent single, became the duo's first Top 10 hit in seven years and only the second of its career. Now the follow-up song, "Run Away With You," is on trend for a repeat.
"At the end of the day, what else do you have except your music?" Rich asked, Alphin perched on a stool beside him.
"It makes me think of a second verse to a Bill Withers song," said Alphin, who started singing: " 'Please, swallow your pride. If I have faith that you can borrow.' I'm sure we probably gave each other a lot of faith. I think this guy can do anything he can dream of," he added, nodding toward Rich.
"We felt that (teamwork) come in on 'Look at You' and now we're feeling that again on 'Run Away With You,' " Rich said. "It's exciting to watch it play out."
Wade Jessen, who was senior chart manager for Billboard in Nashville until his death Thursday, expressed in a Wednesday interview that he wasn't surprised Big & Rich had found success again on country radio. Jessen said that he believed Rich and Alphin were "ahead of the curve" with "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" and that the "climate for that musical attitude" is more favorable now than it was 11 years ago.
"Both of those guys are such serious, artistic people," Jessen said. "I think they have artistic and creative respect and they always have. I think that's a really powerful combination."
A handpicked team
Together, with manager Marc Oswald, Rich and Alphin formed Big & Rich Records. Oswald jokes they run the company out of a P.O. box. In reality, they don't even have that.
Unlike a major record label, Big & Rich Records has no administrative costs and doesn't employ departments of people. Rich and Alphin independently contract with different companies for publicity, promotion and distribution when services are needed.
"It ain't like it's me and Kenny out there, two guys taking on the world," Rich said. "It's two guys with a whole new army of people. It's not a corporate army. It's people who believe in Big & Rich wholeheartedly."
Leaving the leverage that could be wielded by a major record label on their behalf was a risk. But the payoff is a handpicked team of people who devote undivided attention to Big & Rich's music.
Rich and Alphin work right alongside their team. When it came time to make promotional calls to radio station programmers and music directors for "Look at You," Rich talked to them himself — instead of assigning the job to someone else. If they weren't playing his song, he wanted to know why. He made his argument, and if they still didn't agree, he knew he had done all he could do.
"You don't always get the answer you want to hear," Rich said. "It's a pretty healthy thing for the artist to be able to talk directly to the guy or gal playing their music. There's a finite amount of material that you're going to have as the body of your work. Being able to talk to these guys one-on-one is everything to us."
They also discovered that the marketing of the music can be as creative as writing the songs. They sit down to brainstorm new and inventive ways to present the Big & Rich package to fans, radio and the music community. Recently they paired with famed video director Trey Fanjoy to create what the duo call "The Gravity Quadriology." Along with Oswald, they chose four songs from "Gravity" and asked Fanjoy to write a plot that tied them together. Then they went to Las Vegas, hired actors and spent several days shooting a mini-movie with Fanjoy that can also be divided into four separate music videos.
"It's part concert film with a musical concert and part narrative movie," Fanjoy said. "It's groundbreaking in the music video format to have an extended long form where the chapters can stand alone individually and then can also come together to create something larger and cohesive."
Songs included in the project are the duo's current single, "Run Away With You," which plays as the longform video opens. "Look At You," "Brand New Buzz," "Gravity" and "Lovin' Lately" featuring Tim McGraw follow. McGraw also makes an appearance as an actor during the song in the Quadriology.
"It was challenging connecting all the narrative dots to fit four very different tracks," Fanjoy said of the project, which can be viewed at www.bigandrich.com and www.cmt.com. "(It was an) absolutely amazing experience collaborating with John, Kenny, Tim and some serious talent on our crews. John Rich, Big Kenny and McGraw have all been trailblazers in country music."
With their new independent status, the men admit that mounting such an extensive video project taxed their budget. However, as happened with their video for "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," they said potential investors heard about the progressive nature of the project and stepped up to help.
"We have a long history … of not being able to afford what our mind was telling us it should be and people come in to (make the budget work)," Rich said. "The Quadriology looks like a $2 million video and it really is. But everybody came in and did it because they wanted to be a part of that music."
"All of a sudden you can put it together and make it happen and all of a sudden you're doing stuff that hasn't been done," Alphin added. "And we're not sure how it's going to work out businesswise, but we'll take that risk."
Rich and Alphin high-fived and said, laughing, that in the last year they stopped betting on cards and started betting on themselves.
"At the end of the day, if you lose the hand of cards after you have impacted everybody you know, you do sleep better at night," Rich said. "Nobody is guaranteed to succeed every time. That's not how this thing works. If it succeeds, great. If it doesn't, then you know there was no stone left unturned."
Reach Cindy Watts at 615-664-2227 or [email protected]
Big & Rich's most successful country radio singles include:
"Wild West Show"
"Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)"
"Comin' to Your City"
"8th of November"
"Lost in This Moment"
"That's Why I Pray"
"Look at You"