Horse of a Different Color by Big & Rich, probably the most unabashedly and forward-thinkingly dance-oriented Top 10 country album since western swing, opens with a preacher’s exhortation: “I present to you country music without prejudice!” Then straight man John Rich and fall guy Big Kenny start in on proving it. A hard swing materializes from Southern metal-funk powerchords interspersed with mountain fiddles and banjos under shouted street-gang hey-hey-heys, a chorus referencing “Raw Hide” through Fred Durst, hamster squeaks quoting the Wiseguys’ techno hit “Cause the Commotion,” nonsensical Charley Pride and Johnny Cash shoutouts, and blatant lies—such as “Why they trying to complicate this simple music that we make?” in one of the most complexly constructed country tracks ever. All of which leads you into a bilingual old-school rap from Cowboy Troy, a very tall black man with an economics degree: “Back home we love to dance/We could be two-steppin’ or ravin’ to trance/And when the party is crunk the girls back it up/We’ve got the systems in the cars and the 20s on the trucks.” Big & Rich claim their fans listen to Ludacris and OutKast as well as Kenny Chesney, and “Nashville’s going to catch up with that.”
Maybe it already has. A couple months ago, I caught an Allentown country station playing the looooong (15 minutes flat) version of “Rapper’s Delight”; next day, the DJ was quite funkily scratching “Sweet Home Alabama” riffs into Charlie Daniels’s “Legend of Wooley Swamp.” Around the same time, Big & Rich were debuting with this year’s weirdest and loveliest country single, “Wild West Show,” which mixes a placid keyboard intro, spacious spaghetti-western guitars, and Andes flute solos into a tepee-and-peace-pipe lyric that repeatedly chants “hey yaaaa!” à la fellow Native American stereotypist Andre 3000.
You can bet Kid Rock envies Horse‘s punchline quotient too. There’s this totally self-effacing gimme-three-steps two-step where the singer keeps getting his ass kicked by bar bullies and hog-tied by the police, who cut doughnuts in his yard when he’s blasting Zeppelin. A woozy goof about falling in love with newscasters turns into a bizarre speed-hoedown comparable only to Swedish club-novelty act Rednex’s 1995 electro-squaredance “Cotton Eye Joe.” Then the duo’s bawdily bumper-stickered follow-up single, “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” has them bling-blinging and tossing Benjis out windows and “what-what”-ing Lil Jon-style, until they mosey into a lazily mint-juleped riverboat shuffle with a distorted guitar solo played as jazz. Magic tricks, hog calls, Prozac pranks, and Spanish diversions oddly reminiscent of Mex-hop jokers Molotov stretch out several songs past 4:50 (unheard of in country), but in a disco-remix way, not an arena-pomp way: in service of crack buddy-movie harmonies and a dance rhythm that doesn’t feel remotely retro.
None of it’s mean-spirited, either. These guys love The Wizard of Oz like Nellie McKay; they wear dresses in their CD booklet; they tell websites they met through a dating service; they proclaim “I’ve got a whole buttload of friends” and “riding up and down Broadway on my old stud Leroy” and “Who gives a hoot if you’re red, yellow, purple, or pink” and “I am what I am and I can’t do nothing about that.” If Montgomery Gentry’s Gitmo-ized new longplayer is about building a hard-rock fortress, Big & Rich are about building bridges between red and blue states and pissing on the culture wars’ wagon wheels and boarding the O’Jays’ love train. (Yep, that’s another title; starts with choo-choo disco toot-toots, plus Republicans and Democrats bickering.)
Spawn of an old Virginia cowhand and a church pianist, Big Kenny raves in interviews about how Jesus unconditionally loved hookers, drunkards, robbers, and tax collectors; before a schlock stint in Lonestar, John Rich grew up in Amarillo with a guitar-playing minister dad (“somewhere between a Baptist and a Pentecostal,” he told angrycountry.com). The three least irreverent songs on Horse of a Different Color all peddle religion. Despite empathetic acknowledgement of sex and suicide and fluid gospel backup from sweet Martina McBride and tough Gretchen Wilson (whose wonderful debut is half John Rich compositions), “Saved” and “Holy Water” and “Live This Life” aren’t as over-the-top as the rest of the album. But they still make it bigger and richer, still help it point a way out for country. And if enough fence-riders hear it, maybe even for the country.