Big & Rich ready to 'throwdown' at Calgary's inaugural Country Thunder
Big Kenny and John Rich of Big & Rich perform during the 4th Annual Windy City Smokeout, BBQ and Country Music Festival in Chicago on July 16, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. They'll be in Calgary this weekend for the inaugural Country Thunder festival. DANIEL BOCZARSKI/ GETTY IMAGES FOR WINDY CITY SMOK
If the Country Thunder festivals were looking for an official spokesman, they might want to keep William Kenneth Alphin on retainer.
The man known as Big Kenny, one-half of American country duo Big & Rich, is on the phone for seconds before he’s singing the festival’s praises, calling organizers “some of the pros of the pros when it comes to festival linueps, making sure everybody is having themselves a good, a Big & Rich time.”
The fact that they’ve expanded into this neck of the woods for the inaugural Calgary Country Thunder taking place Friday through Sunday at Prairie Winds Park, and booked he and his partner John Rich to help kick things off, is something that he sees as a natural.
“I tell you what, man, Country Thunder, it’s exciting to see ’em come in there to Calgary because those festivals have been some of Big & Rich’s bangin’-est experiences in North America over the years,” says Alphin of the other Thunder events, which take place in Arizona, Wisconsin and one province over as the Craven Country Jamboree.
“Super excited to see ’em coming into Calgary. It’s always a throwdown.”
Prior to Big & Rich’s Friday night headlining spot at Country Thunder, Alphin spoke with the Herald.
Q: How’s your summer been so far.
A: Summer’s been awesome. It’s been an explosive summer. We’ve been on tour constantly and travelling all over North America playing and looking forward to the rest of the year, which looks like it’s lining up just as crazy. And then in and out of that when we’re back in town from the road we’re writing and recording, writing and recording, getting ready for our second release off of our own label, Big & Rich Records. We’ll be putting out our second album next year, so we’re about 10 tracks into that right now and actually going to be working in the studio this afternoon on new stuff. So it’s been a great, busy, busy summer.
And it’s cool, we’ve got our third single (Lovin’ Lately featuring fellow Country Thunder headliner Tim McGraw) off of our current album Gravity, our third single is getting ready to bust into the Top 10. This will be the first time that we’ve had back-to-back, consecutive Top 10s off of our albums before, and doing it on our own record label now. We’ve never had back-to-back Top 10s off of our major label deal (with Warner Bros. Nashville). We’ve had No. 1s and everything, but not this kind of consistency, so it’s pretty cool.
Q: It must be more gratifying doing it yourself?
A: Yeah, it does feel good to see that happen. It’s a lot of work, also. It’s taken on a whole other level of stick-to-it-iveness, but over the years we’ve been able to build this team of people around us and get to know some of the best of the best that now are partners with us. And over the past three years now, having put out this first album … now we’ve built it even more solid and the team keeps getting bigger and better, and I think the partnerships that we have together now with Big & Rich records are way farther and beyond anything that we’ve had on the business side of our career in the past. That’s where it feels good, feels real good, just knowing that we’re the ones who are on the line every day, whether it happens or not: we have successes, it’s up to us; we have failures, it’s our fault. So we make sure we just keep it kicking forward in a positive way every day, man. And it’s working.
Q: What was the reason behind the decision, because you were well established with Warner and it seemed as if it was a good relationship?
A: It was a good relationship, but we signed to Warner when they first came to us in 2003 and there were only two other acts on the label — it was Faith (Hill) and Blake (Shelton). And at the time we gave them this record, where we were writing and recording and thinking that, “Hey, man, we’re just going to bang this out, we’re going to have a great record,” we surprised them with it. So in 2013 when we handed in this record, they were like, “This is awesome, this is some of your best work to date, but we’ve got 13 acts on the label now and we’ve got our calendar set up to put out one a month. So if we put y’all on the calendar now it will be approximately 13 months before we release the first single.” And John and I looked at each other and went, “Man, we can’t sit on this that long.” I guess the best way to put it is creativity and commerce just don’t agree. When you create something like that you want everybody to have it, hear it. So that just killed us.
So we talked to (John) Esposito who was running the label at that point and said, “John, man, we understand what you gotta do, but you gotta understand us.” And he said, “Well, guys, if you want to take this thing and try to run with it yourself, then I will let you do it.” So he was kind enough to let us do our own thing … and three singles later, things are looking pretty good, and we’re getting ready to put out our second album next year.
Q: Will you be previewing any of the new songs when you’re at Country Thunder?
A: Ha-ha-ha-haaa. It’s possible, but we are just starting to do some of ’em like when me and John are playing out acoustically, sometimes we’re doing them. We haven’t put any into the band set yet but we are kind of at that place where we’re starting to toy around with them with the band. We’re primarily just writing and recording in the studio right now …
Q: Can you give away and secrets, any special guest stars you’re hoping to enlist for the album? Any new direction you’re taking?
A: (Laughs) I think that the biggest thing I can tell you on this album is that it’s going to be fresh, fresh Big & Rich again. We’re just pushing the envelopes on all sides, trying to create songs that we think just sound classic and then no different than that first album that came out (2004’s) Horse of a Different Color …
I can say that playing live, coming up there to Country Thunder Calgary, that we’re going to be coming out with DJ Sinister … and of course we’re going to be bringing Cowboy Troy with us, too. The energy that comes from this show is just unbelievable. We leave nothing behind and take no prisoners, so we’re going to be truly making sure that we live up to the name of Country Thunder.
Q: Knowing who else is on the lineup, will there be any other guests joining you onstage?
A: Well, if I told you any others right now, then they wouldn’t be the surprise that we would hope for them to be. All I can tell you is that looking at this lineup it is guaranteed to be a throwdown across the board and a good time for everyone.
Big & Rich perform Friday as part of Country Thunder, which runs Friday through Sunday at Prairie Winds Park. For tickets and more information go to countrythunder.com/festivals/country-thunder-alberta
(Note: This interview was edited for space and clarity.)
Country Thunder: Tim McGraw one of genre's true superstars
Tim McGraw will headline Saturday's mainstage at Country Thunder. CALGARY HERALD
Sitting in the cab of his stepfather’s eighteen-wheeler, a young Tim McGraw would sing along to country music classics blaring from the truck’s speakers.
George Jones, Charley Pride and Johnny Paycheck were just a few of the performers whose songs made a lasting impact on the four-time American Music Award Best Male Country Vocalist winner.
“By the time I was six, I felt as if I knew the words to every album Merle Haggard ever recorded,” McGraw told Time magazine.
As much as McGraw loved country music, it wasn’t his first choice as a career.
An avid sports fan (and son of the late professional baseball pitcher Tug McGraw), McGraw was a decent enough athlete to receive a baseball scholarship to Northeast Louisiana University where he took pre-law courses.
Studying, however, wasn’t his strong suit and McGraw spent more time partying and playing guitar than hitting the books. A knee injury put an end to his baseball dreams and academic life, but McGraw was destined for greater things.
“The only thing I learned in college was how to float a keg,” he said in a Washington Post interview.
“I didn’t figure that was going to get me too far. So even though it was kind of scary, I wasn’t giving up much. I thought I could make it.”
McGraw moved to Nashville in 1989 and spent a year making contacts and cutting his teeth in the competitive club scene before being picked up by Curb Records.
While his 1993 self-titled debut was largely ignored by radio and pretty much everyone else, his second album Not a Moment Too Soon was a massive success.
Not only did it spawn five Top 10 country singles, it was Billboard’s top-selling album in 1994.
It was also named Album of the Year at the American Music Awards.
Building on the success of Not a Moment Too Soon, McGraw released three more chart-topping, platinum-selling records — All I Want, Everywhere and A Place in the Sun — before the end of the decade.
One of his greatest successes, though, is his marriage to fellow country star Faith Hill.
The pair became romantically involved in the spring of 1996 when Hill was the supporting act on McGraw’s Spontaneous Combustion Tour.
They married a few months later and have three children, although the couple still faces divorce rumours in the press every so often.
“We don’t really pay that much attention to (the gossip),” McGraw told Billboard magazine.
More than 25 years after he first set foot in Nashville, McGraw — who headlines the Country Thunder mainstage on Saturday — remains one of country music’s biggest stars.
“Some days it feels like I’ve been doing it forever and some days it feels like I’m just scratching the surface,” he remarked to Billboard.
“I’m at that point in my career where there’s confidence in what I do, but I also feel like I’ve still got so far to go and so much to learn. That’s the perfect combination.”
Hometown: Delhi, Louisiana
Best known for Being one of country music’s most successful artists of all time. (And also marrying another one of the most successful country singers of all time, Faith Hill.)