Chris Willman
July 09, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In the slightly whacked-out world of big & rich, it’s John Rich, the mustachioed, Stetson-wearing dude, who’s a son of a Texas preacher man. But it’s partner Big Kenny, a Virginia-bred longhair with an affinity for top hats, who’s given to making pro-tolerance pronouncements in the tones of a tent evangelist.

”Brothers and sisters, we give you country music without prejudice-ah!” Big Kenny preaches at the beginning of a set on a Nashville soundstage, just prior to going on tour with Tim McGraw. Power chords and banjo plucking lie down together in their musical bed like lamb and lion, and then the action really gets under way, when Rich promises ”something you’ve never seen before — the only 6’4”, 260-pound black rapping cowboy in the universe…Cowboy Troy!” A few songs later, a more diminutive friend drives a cart out and hops off to dance around. ”Two-Foot Fred is in the house!” the duo exult, welcoming Freddie Gill (whose dwarfism really tops out at three feet). This onstage traffic is actually minimal by Big & Rich standards: Tonight they’re without frequent guests like Kid Rock and Martina McBride, or the gal who does abstract paintings during their weekly Nashville jams, or the pink-clad cheerleaders who helped make their Academy of Country Music Awards performance in May a flash point for controversy. Did we say tent evangelist? Circus ringmasters is more like it.

A few months ago, the market for hip-hop-tinged honky-tonk that’s rich with heavenly harmonizing and big on free-for-all rock sensibilities wasn’t bullish. (”We call it expandalism,” Big Kenny, 40, says of their boundary-defying approach. ”Don’t look it up, you won’t find it.”) That was before they vaulted into Billboard’s top 15 with ”Horse of a Different Color” — a debut album one prominent radio programmer has pegged as possibly the most important in the format since the Willie ‘n’ Waylon-led ”Outlaws” collection of 1976. Which is not to say there aren’t some souls who’d like to see Big & Rich outlawed.

”Kenny does spoken word in [the single] ‘Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),’ and they’re going ‘Keep rap out of country!’ on the message boards,” says Rich, 30, who was fired from the ballad-happy Lonestar in ’98. ”But most of ’em are freaking out over it.” If country fansites haven’t been this polarized since that Dixie Chicks dustup, haters won’t squelch Big & Rich’s diplomatic ambitions. ”On this side of the fence, it’s okay for country boys to own an OutKast album. We hope ours becomes that for the other side of the fence: ‘Country, aw, I never was into it — but Big & Rich, I’ve got that; let’s put that thing in.”’

In the race to be considered 2004’s most extravagantly entertaining country CD, ”Horse” is in a dead heat with Gretchen Wilson’s ”Here for the Party.” That’s no coincidence: The duo discovered Wilson six years ago, and together they’re the nexus of a Nashville collective known as the Musik Mafia (”the Opry on crack,” Rich calls it). ”John Rich is my best friend and probably the most talented person I’ve ever met,” says Wilson, who affirms the pair are ”really different — though Kenny’s different from everybody.” Rich is more the song-plugging traditionalist, Kenny the poetry-spouting, peace-spreading neo-hippie.

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