Afew hours before he is scheduled to shake and shimmy in front of 10,000 fans inside the sold-out Roanoke Civic Center, Two-Foot Fred, the dwarf prince of Nashville, is loose on an all-terrain vehicle in the arena's back parking lot. "The Deuce" -- as his bosses affectionately call him -- can barely reach the handlebars.
Fred, the cult-inspiring star of the video for country duo Big & Rich's risque hit "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," steers the four-wheeler past buses and barbecue grills. People wave, flash thumbs-up. Big & Rich's growing gaggle of groupies reach out for him over security barriers.
The Deuce jerks to a stop near a stern-faced leviathan named Cowboy Troy. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound rapper -- in black cowboy hat, gaudy belt buckle and bright, tight Superman T-shirt -- will also play a major role in Big & Rich's act tonight, unleashing a motor-mouthed rhyme during "Rollin' (The Ballad of Big & Rich)":
You're lookin' at me crazy 'cause you think I'm loco The Big Black Cowboy with the crazy vocal.
When the fans inside the arena -- most of whom are here to worship cut-and-paste headliner Tim McGraw and most of whom wouldn't know Jay-Z if he streaked the Grand Ole Opry -- get a load of the dancing dwarf's two-step and the black rapper's flow, they'll erupt in screams. Perhaps out of fear.
"You're gonna see a whole different vibe tonight," says 30-year-old John Rich, a thin, dark-haired man who looks like the quiet dude at the poker table who's about to take all your chips. "It'll sound like an AC/DC concert."
Straight-and-narrow Nashville isn't quite sure what to do with Rich and his partner, Big Kenny Alphin, whose debut album, "Horse of a Different Color," came out of nowhere to push past the hallowed million-sold mark in just three months. Sure, the good-time album has punny honky-tonkers and slick ballads. But there's also the rap-rock of "Rollin' " with its all-inclusive message ("Charley Pride was the man in black / Rock-and-roll used to be about Johnny Cash / Hey, what you think about that?"). A chorus of "Hey ya, hey ya" on "Wild West Show" is an obvious nod to hip-hoppers OutKast. "Save a Horse" has call-and-response moments that remind you of a go-go show. Plus you'll find the kind of silly skits, digi-squiggles and self-referential boasting more akin to a Ludacris disc. Yep, "Horse of a Different Color" is controlled, country-skewering chaos.
"Show me another country act with a black person in it!" Rich says.
Although they have nothing but nice things to say about McGraw -- after all, he did give them a slot on his tour -- Mr. Faith Hill nevertheless represents the cleansing of country's gritty roots. Big & Rich want to dirty things up again. With a little help from their friends, they've started a movement called the Muzik Mafia, a tight-knit collection of maverick talents intent on giving Nashville a swift kick in the gitalong. Think Willie Nelson's ruckus-raising Outlaws from the '70s -- then add a dwarf.
The Muzik Mafia -- at first it was just Rich and Alphin, and songwriter Jon Nicholson and publishing exec Cory Gierman, aka the four "Godfathers" -- started in a small Nashville bar a few years ago. They'd jam together, invite some friends, invite some more friends. They just wanted to play good music and shelter one another from cutthroat Nashville politics.
And now the Muzik Mafia is changing the way business is done on Music Row, a music factory that fears change the way vampires fear light.
But before Big & Rich reveal the secrets of the Mafia, they want to talk about Two-Foot Fred and Cowboy Troy. The little person and the rapper just might be the keys to all of this.
"Why do you think Two-Foot Fred is so important to what we do?" Rich asks about his friend, who introduces the band as well as dances. "Big & Rich don't fit any musical genre as far as Fred's concerned. And that's why he likes it so much, 'cause he doesn't fit in anywhere, either. When someone who doesn't feel like they belong at a country show sees a dwarf onstage, dancing around. . . . Well, you can't be any more out of place than that. If he's cool, everybody's cool."
"The Deuce is a badass," says the 40-year-old Alphin. "I think he's a superstar."
And with that, Alphin, a tall shaggy blond from Culpeper, Va., takes another gulp of Crown Royal whiskey, the preferred fuel for this nonstop party. There are bottles of the hooch everywhere -- on buses, in dressing rooms, even in their songs. Just as 50 Cent talks up Bacardi on "In Da Club," Big & Rich, on "Save a Horse," "buy the bar a double round of Crown and everybody's getting down." Plus, they're "singing and bling-blinging."
Rich, who grew up in Amarillo, Tex., believes there's a very strong "blue-collar connection" between rap and country, something he and his Big partner wanted to explore on their "hick-hop" tracks.
"I had three black guys walk up to me the other night after a show in Greensboro, N.C.," he says. "They were dressed in their Sean John stuff. They were leaving before McGraw came on. And one of the guys was like, 'I love your record, bro.' And his buddy says, 'That black cowboy rapper was crazy!' "I asked them what other country music they like. 'Just Big & Rich, man. Just Big & Rich.' . . . Charley Pride was the only black person ever in country music. But I guaran-damn-tee you there are more than just white people listening to country music."
Alphin says the only reason they didn't put even more hip-hop influences on the album was because "people been living in black and white all their lives, so you just can't throw color at them. You gotta do this bit by bit."
At a Big & Rich meet-and-greet after the Roanoke show, 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P." pumped from a boombox. On his bus, Rich likes to crank demos he produced for a Muzik Mafia member named Chance, a Nashville rapper who's just as fast as Twista (no kidding) but who rhymes over "Dueling Banjos"-style picking.
And then, of course, there's Cowboy Troy. There is a "common thread" between hip-hop and country, says the man who stomps onstage each night for the show-closing "Rollin'," throwing a fist the size of a canned ham into the air and demanding more crowd noise. "It's all about having a good time, drinking whatever you want to drink. Friends and family. . . . Big & Rich are breaking down barriers, cross-pollinating between genres."
Alphin and Rich like to stamp their motto, "Country music without prejudice," on posters, T-shirts, liner notes, wherever. It may sound like a slick gimmick -- after all, Kid Rock has merged Southern rock and rap, plus he buddied onstage with little person Joe C. -- but it comes off as affectionate and genuine. Rich, formerly with the band Lonestar, has been friends with Cowboy Troy Coleman for 11 years and pals with Two-Foot Fred Gill for six. Both sidekicks sleep on Rich's bus.
"We're friends first," says the 33-year-old Cowboy Troy, who was an assistant manager at Foot Locker when he got the call from Rich to come rap on "Rollin'." "My personal loyalty is to John Rich and Big Kenny."
"Somebody else in Big & Rich's position would not be as cool to me," says the 30-year-old Two-Foot Fred, the owner of five businesses in his home of Seymour, Ind., who usually prefers a motorized scooter to an all-terrain vehicle. "With me, there's a little more baggage. It's not easy. But they're unbelievable. They don't even blink an eye when it comes to helping me."
Alphin was a straight-up rock-and-roller before he joined forces with Rich and became the "Universal Minister of Love," the hammy persona Big Kenny takes on when he preaches his sex-and-salvation sermons during live shows. Looking a little like Disney's version of Tarzan, Alphin is a tie-dyed hippie in a sleeveless mechanic's shirt. Cornball wisdom spews forth from his five o'clock mug in a constant torrent: "The only thing I learned in my life is that I just want to be happy. You can decide you wanna be happy. Or you can decide you wanna be sad. It's like the darkness wants to put out the light!"
Okay, now it's time to talk about the Muzik Mafia.
An Offer Y'all Can't Refuse
It all started in 1998 with a flying piece of gum. "Kenny was playing in a bar in Nashville, and I'd been hearing a lot about him," says Rich, who had just parted ways with Lonestar. (All he'll say about the split is that "They want to write about their wives and kids. We want to write about finding wives and having kids.") "Anyway, I had some time on my hands and went to check him out. And, yeah, he slung bubble gum off the stage at the end of the show, and a piece of it hit me in the face."
"You know, it's kind of like going to the carnival, and they give stuff to the kids," Alphin says with a slow-spreading grin. "I always thought it was cool for people to leave with something. Sometimes it would be Now and Laters or Bit-o-Honeys."
Even though Big Kenny was a rocker (and before that a house builder who went bankrupt) and Rich was a lifelong country guy, a mutual friend encouraged them to write songs together.
"So we exchanged numbers," Rich says. "The first three writing appointments we set up, one of us blew it off the day of. We canceled on each other three times. And finally, we said 'This is ridiculous, let's do it one time and get it over with.' So we wrote, it went really good, and so we decided 'Let's try another one.' " "Those two guys, they were like two bulldogs meeting each other," laughs Muzik Mafia Godfather Cory Gierman, who at the time was about to lose his job at a Nashville song-publishing company. "At first, it was like opposites hittin'. " For the next couple of years, Rich and Alphin wrote together while they pursued solo careers -- careers that never took off, they say, because they refused to cater to Nashville's look-pretty, sound-safe rules. And then one night in 2001, Alphin and roommate Nicholson, a songwriter also recently out of work, were at a small Nashville bar when an idea struck.
"We were at the Pub of Love sitting downstairs in this kind of little loungy place," says Alphin in a conspiratorial whisper. "You know, it was kind of Mafia-like, and we're looking at each other, and one of us said, 'There oughta be a Mafia in this town. . . . It'll be us and all of our friends involved in the business.' Out of necessity we were helping each other."
"This business feeds off being able to manipulate artists," says Gierman. "Putting artists in a box, like caged animals. It was a dictatorship, and the artists were following. . . . We talked about the Mafia aspect because we were tired of fighting this battle ourselves. Let's take what we learned and put our heads together, Mafia-style."
So every Tuesday night they got together to play at various locations. It wasn't advertised in the paper. It was just singers and songwriters frustrated by the Nashville cold shoulder, wanting to let loose. They pledged allegiance to the Muzik Mafia, spread the buzz of their fellow family members and watched each other's backs.
Rich had been writing songs with a tough-talking, trailer-park-born bartender named Gretchen Wilson for a few years and "when the Mafia started, I said to her, 'You gotta come out and Mafia; it's pretty fun.' So she started coming out, and people from Music Row started seeing her. She'd get through bartending and drag all the bartenders with her."
Thanks to her Mafia appearances, Wilson was signed by Epic Records; this past May, her album "Here for the Party" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, making it the highest debut ever for a Nashville rookie. Rich co-produced the album and co-wrote its No. 1 smash, "Redneck Woman."
Soon after, Warner Bros. executive Paul Worley, after his daughter told him to go check out a Muzik Mafia event, signed Big & Rich. This August, "Horse of a Different Color" was No. 1 on the Billboard country charts until McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying" knocked it down to No. 2. Big & Rich and Wilson also account for half of the country acts on Billboard's Top 20 pop list, proof that the Mafia has killer crossover moves, as well.
And so on. Wilson and Big & Rich, now in positions of power, talked up Nicholson -- and then he signed a deal with Warner Bros. Mafia member James Otto, a country crooner, just inked a deal with Mercury Records. Cowboy Troy will start working on his solo record next year. Two-Foot Fred might get his own talk show. And Gierman recently parted ways with Universal Publishing to be an "independent consultant" at Warner Bros., where he is working on starting a Muzik Mafia-related label. ("We'll use a different name," he says. "We want the Mafia to stay pure.") Now just about everyone in Nashville is clamoring to join the movement. But it's not that easy.
"No phonies. We never let 'em onstage," says Rich. "Within 30 seconds, we can tell who's a phony. There's platinum artists that we won't let on the mike. It's gotta be people who do things that are unselfish."
"We'd have to have seen you somewhere," says Alphin. "You aren't going to just hop up onstage at the Mafia, unless somebody pretty damn close to us says that you're a badass." Sony Music Nashville President John Grady, a competitor of Big & Rich's Warner Bros. label, believes the Mafia is "extremely powerful" and not to be taken lightly.
"What impresses me most is that they've created a support system for themselves," Grady says. "They don't go by any rules -- and trust me, there are a lot of rules in Nashville."
Grady acknowledges there are industry types who think the Mafia is a pain in the chaps. "Most of it is based in jealousy," he says. "There were a lot of naysayers with Shania Twain. Anyone who gets famous, there are going to be naysayers."
But Grady doesn't see the movement faltering any time soon. "They make room for each other. There's no ego. No central figure. And a lot of that thrives off John and Kenny's energy."
As long as Rich and Alphin stay together, the Mafia should stay together.
With this oddest of couples, however, you just never know.
Both Rich and Alphin are single, but that's about all they have in common. Alphin's tour bus -- aka "The Love Bus" -- is candle-lit and scarf-strewn. There just might be a bong lurking behind the bongos, as well. Rich's bus, where most of the band congregates, is a bright corporate cruiser with two flat-screen TVs, drawers of DVDs, immaculate leather sofas and a strict "No No. 2" policy when it comes to the bathroom. "I've seen John clean the bus more than twice myself," says Two-Foot Fred.
Rich usually has a copy of the latest music-sales charts in front of him. Alphin spends a lot of his time sipping Crown and waxing poetic. Rich is a private man who keeps personal details to a minimum. Alphin thrusts his cell phone at a reporter and laughs, "It's my ex-wife!" ("He always used to say, 'It Ken be done,' " Karen Garr says with a sigh. "He has a very different life now, but he's still the same.") When the artists took a tour of the pit area at Richmond's NASCAR track the day before, Rich did his glad-handing duty with a polite smile and the accompanying painful small talk. Alphin worked the track like a loopy politician, mugging for pictures, peering under hoods and back-slapping drivers as if he were desperate for votes.
Onstage, though, their relationship is much different. Big Kenny, with his stovepipe hat, Terminator shades and guitar with "Love Everybody" on the back, and Rich, with black jeans, black shirt and guitar with "Yeehaw!," play off each other with a rambunctious, brotherly vibe.
They grin ear-to-ear when Two-Foot Fred dances out from backstage then takes a seat in his red velvet mini-throne. They get the crowd chanting, "Go Cowboy! Go Cowboy! Go!" when Troy bursts onto the scene. And when they sing -- Big Kenny taking the low parts, Rich the high-lonesome croon -- their harmonizing is a thing of symbiotic beauty.
At the show's close, Rich violently waves his guitar over his head like he's gonna pull a Pete Townshend, while Alphin strips off his shirt and throws it into the crowd. (At a recent all-star jam taped for Country Music Television, the Big man had to jump into the audience and retrieve his tossed shirt when he realized that a baggie of something special was still in the pocket.) "It may just be magic why it works," says Two-Foot Fred. "There is such a thing as magic, you know."
Sony's Grady believes that Gretchen Wilson copycats are coming. Big & Rich, however, are a much harder act to follow. "Big & Rich are so outside the box," he says. "There's some real depth there."
On Oct. 26, the duo will release the two-disc "Big & Rich's Super Galactic Fan Pak," which will include a CD of unreleased tracks and live cuts, plus a DVD featuring concert footage and interviews. In true Mafia style, Big & Rich, Wilson, Nicholson and Otto will join forces for a tour later this year. In 2005, Big & Rich will get in a studio and get to work on their next record. They're hoping to get pedal-steel star Robert Randolph, a friend of the Muzik Mafia and a fellow genre-mixer (gospel, funk, pop, you name it), to join them on some cuts.
And if the all-out carnival of "Horse of a Different Color" keeps selling well -- and the Muzik Mafia keeps putting friends in high places -- Alphin and Rich are envisioning a day when they can really cut loose at their shows.
"There will be a trapeze swinging from above, with very, very, very, very unique talent on it," Alphin says after a swig of Crown. "There'll be jugglers and art and painting going on. And spinning, lot of spinning. And there'll be video of children skipping through sunflower fields."
"Lots of firearms with blanks, too," Rich says, straight-faced.
"We're also going to tie helium balloons onto each chair, and John will tell everybody, 'Take your helium balloon, untie it from your chair, and everybody inhale it at the same time and say the biggest "Yeehaw" anyone's ever heard.' " "He's not kidding," says Rich. "When we're headlining and we have that kind of money, it'll be like the biggest circus you've ever seen."
"The Greatest Show on Earth is getting ready to come back again," Alphin says. "Our live show is going to be the thing that makes Big & Rich big and rich."