Big & Rich exploded onto the country music scene in summer 2004 with a full throttle sound that celebrated the duo’s individualism with an entertaining and downright quirky edge. Good timin’ honky tonk attitude was mixed with an onslaught of heavy riffs and a wide-open Western feel to create a totally unique brand of country on their 3x platinum-selling debut, Horse of a Different Color. Two more albums followed, but by 2008, the duo of Big Kenny and John Rich felt it was time for a break. Fast-forward to 2012 and Big & Rich are set to return with their fourth studio album, Hillbilly Jedi, in stores today.
The new set, produced by Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts), is a 12-song tour-de-force aiming to reclaim the urgency and power of their 2004 debut. On Hillbilly Jedi, Big & Rich return to form with a refreshed sound as they bring their creative A-game. The album-opener “Born Again” builds anticipation with a circular acoustic lick straight off the range while a steady bass drum pounds. Singing in harmony, the duo delivers the sort of left-of-center lyrical visuals we’ve come to know from them. It’s been too long since we tore a town down like King Kong, they sing before a wall of guitar comes crashing in. Jon Bon Jovi and guitar-slinging partner Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi co-wrote the song with Big & Rich and add their talents to the track. This foursome also wrote “Can’t Be Satisfied,” an uptempo, adult-contemporary leaning tune on the album’s back half.
The vast majority of Hillbilly Jedi keeps the tempo cranked up. The party anthem “Cowboyz” burns through thick electric riffs as dynamic harmonies come quick. It’s a backwoods romp with a hick hop-tinged verse as “box wine” and “pappy’s apple pie moonshine” fuel the night. The unapologetic “Rock The Boat” builds off of fiddle, banjo and a heavy stomp to let you know exactly where this one is headed. Put a little turbo in my twang, they sing before longtime friend and fellow Muzik Mafia member Cowboy Troy assists with a country rap. Cowboy Troy also appears on “Get Your Game On,” a twang-filled, futuristic country rocker you’d expect to hear if Jabba the Hutt decided to open a sports-themed country club. All of these songs come off with a refocused and electric energy as Big & Rich continually deliver their classic sound on the project.
The first single “That’s Why I Pray” and the shimmering “Lay It All On Me” come through with emotional clarity. Speaking out against bullying and taking notice of everyday hardships, “That’s Why I Pray” also offers the optimistic message that, I believe in better days / That’s why I pray. “Lay It All On Me” is the emotional center of the record. A melodic, Western-influenced song that never loses control, the highlight track is full of beautiful harmonies and an even-handed approach.
Big & Rich have always embraced different musical styles, yet they’ve also always remained undeniably country. Nothing better illustrates this than “’Cause I Play Guitar,” a loud barnburner that feeds off of rolling melodies, Honky Tonk piano and neon lights. Even the power ballad, “Cheat On You,” though not exactly traditional in sound, features classic country storylines full of stinging lonesomeness and heartache. On “Never Far Away,” the duo is at their most vulnerable as John offers honest melodies while Big Kenny complements with dynamic harmonies.
Big & Rich wrote or co-wrote all but one song on the album as their unique brand of country comes through with dominant force. On Hillbilly Jedi, the duo is back with a masterful set that is refreshed, renewed and re-focused. Just like they announced on their debut, it’s a celebration of music and it’s great to have them back.
Listen to the Key Tracks – “Lay It All On Me,” “That’s Why I Pray,” “Cowboyz,” “’Cause I Play Guitar”: