William Kenneth Alphin is 15 years old and picking up a girl on a first date. It is 1978 and Kenny, as he's known to friends and family, has been granted his driver's license early on account of his status as a volunteer firefighter in the tiny agricultural town of Culpeper, Virginia. In the Pioneer cassette player in his Datsun 810 is Steve Miller's Greatest Hits, whose country-tinged rock 'n' roll might have had a subliminal effect on Alphin. It's still the record that transports him back to pulling up to that girl's house on a warm summer night, "Take the Money and Run" playing through the little Datsun's Kenwood speakers.
Alphin stops a moment and reflects on the record and its associations with a low, warm laugh. He's sitting outside his Nashville home with his family's newest addition, a German shepherd named Beethoven that will eventually join the ranks of Alphin's downtime project of raising military-spec guard dogs. Beethoven barks and Alphin begins to talk about his dogs, one of whom currently is in service at the U.S. Capitol. Of all the things he has to be proud of, this is but a minor accomplishment in the scope of his life. Kenny Alphin is much better known as Big Kenny, one half of critically acclaimed and beloved country duo Big & Rich, whose rock-inspired take on country music once was ahead of its time. Country, it seems, has finally caught up to the band.
"We're just having a great time making music, and if music had ever come around to just people doing that and not over-thinking it too much, that's always a beautiful thing," he says. "I really love where country music has come to, I love everybody that gets out there and [is] yourself -- never imitate and do your thing but let it fit in the core of what country music is."
Yet when Alphin begins to rattle off recent songs that he finds either inspirational or just downright intriguing, there's nary a country song to be found. Among his choices are AWOLNATION's "Sail," Alex Clare's "Too Close," Bastille's "Pompeii," and Avicii's collaboration with Aloe Blacc. It's a left-of-field list that calls to mind what made Big & Rich so popular in the first place. On Horse of a Different Color, the duo's 2004 debut record, Alphin and John Rich brought together rapping, spoken word, and full-out cock rock on an album that shook the foundation of radio country.
"John and I go back and listen to some of the stuff we were making, even just experimentally outside of things that were going on in Horse of a Different Color, and we were really pushing the limits," he says. "Sometimes you just got to trust yourself and wait for the wave of what taste is -- in any music and any format -- to come around."
And when the tide did start to turn in their favor, Alphin was sidelined by a collision with a drunk driver. Requiring a pair of operations on his spine, Alphin stepped back from Big & Rich for a short while. The band's meteoric rise, and the obligations that come with such an ascension, were less than conducive to his recovery. It was a process that took over three years, during which Rich released one LP and two EPs and Alphin released two full-length records. The duo would go on to reunite in 2011, heading into the studio to work on 2012's Hillbilly Jedi. For Alphin, his injury made the road to that record less than easy.
"A number of things got me through it: There were some great doctors, a smart surgeon, and a bunch of caring friends," he says. "There was a time when it was all controlled by everything from occupational [therapy] to physical therapy on the road every day."
If there's a common thread through the past eight years of Big & Rich, however, it's the duo's philanthropic work. It's also a point of pride that Alphin gladly expounds on, as he should. The catalyst for his charity work came about in a serendipitous way, opening his eyes to a world in need. It was 2005, the same year Alphin married his wife, Christiev Carothers, and the couple was expecting their first child.
"Someone had approached me here and asked if I would help pay to bring a speaker to town, a doctor out of Boston, Gloria White-Hammond, to speak to a group called Tennesseans Against Genocide. They had another speaker there, a young man with the State Department, and he just showed me pictures of some of the kinds of atrocities that he'd seen, and it just turns every bit of your being inside out. When you have kids, it's just so hard to look at."
White-Hammond would go on to speak about the lack of academic infrastructure for girls in the south of Sudan and the need for a school in the region. He was motivated to donate time and money, and after what Alphin calls "a few years of staying at it," the Kunuyk School for Girls in Akon, Sudan, now enrolls 550 students. The experience with the school would inspire Alphin to head to Haiti in 2010, following the devastating earthquake that decimated parts of the country.
Stateside, a fateful meeting at the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville in 2001 would lead to a different kind of altruism. It was Christmastime, and the duo was "going from room to room playing carols" when they met Katie Darnell, a 16-year-old four-time brain cancer patient. Upon meeting Rich and Alphin, she showed them "Rescue Me," a song she wrote herself, which Big & Rich would later pitch to Wynonna Judd. Judd recorded the track on her 2003 record What the World Needs Now Is Love, and Big & Rich would go on to write "She's a Butterfly," a song penned for Darnell, that would be recorded by Martina McBride. Rich and Alphin also work with St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, an act whose inception Alphin credits to Rich.
Alphin quiets down a bit as he recalls these stories, these periods with his band in which they gave themselves over to something larger than just the music. Now a father of two, his worldview has been tinted by fatherhood and the concept of legacy. Unlike some artists, that legacy will transcend just his music, though Big & Rich is going as strong as ever. They still want to "play the arenas," having garnered platinum records and massive airplay but never quite cracking the national stadium circuit. To do so, Alphin notes that Big & Rich has to "ring the bell, be at the top of the charts." With "Run Away with You" and "Look at You," from last year's Gravity, still getting radio spins and maintaining chart positioning, they look to be on the cusp of that audience.
However Big & Rich's music moves, whether it's moving their fans, moving up the chart, or moving units, Alphin hints that there's a larger force driving him personally and professionally. The band has led him to places he never thought he would go, making an impact that he's humble enough to downplay but whose influence on his own life he's wise enough to note.
"Doing the right thing just seems to lead to the right thing, wherever it may show itself," he says. "It's just a blessing, but you gotta keep up with it all. Life goes fast, man."
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