I have to give a certain begrudging respect to Big & Rich, even if their 2004 smash hit “Save a Horse” gives me horrible flashbacks of high school kids in West Virginia dancing (poorly) to the tune in cowboy hats and boots. Their unique blend of nihilistic hillbilly epicureanism (I couldn’t resist) sets them apart from most other acts attempting to rekindle the party country rock torch that Bosephus traded in for an illustrious career of singing the same damn Monday Night Football song for a decade. For all I know, Big Kenny and John Rich are two extremely talented, even-keeled adults who cynically realized that parodying hip-hop braggadocio with some twang and a Blue Collar Comedy Tour level of sarcasm could make them far more money than performing as normal people. In that case I can hardly fault them, though you have to ask how long the joke can keep going.
We may never quite find out, however, as their triumphant 2012 return Hillbilly Jedi (go ahead and groan; I’ll wait) only halfway commits to their manic country-fried party rock anthems, sharing equal billing with a wide array of down-tempo ballads. The good news is that these ballads aren’t entirely bad; the bad news is that I didn’t pick up an album called Hillbilly Jedi to hear about the power of prayer or why I should be faithful to my girlfriend. I want to hear about getting drunk on boxed wine and throwing money out of my pick-up truck.
Let me get this rant out of the way now: their single “That’s Why I Pray” makes about as much sense as an LMFAO cover of “Amazing Grace” or Andrew WK including monastic chants on I Get Wet, Part 2. Sure, their earlier albums featured some tongue-in-cheek Christian lyrics, almost as a caricature of the American contradiction that is the beer swilling, chain smoking, profanity spewing, deeply religious southerner. But there’s no irony here. It’s a straightforward gospel ballad lamenting how awful and godless the world has become and why we need prayer more than ever, all rooted in a shaky causal understanding of prayer. Maybe I’m getting my theological panties in a metaphysical knot, but outside audience pandering, the song doesn’t fit the band.
Otherwise, the duo mostly delivers on their up-tempo goofiness. “Born Again”, the pre-requisite “we are back and still relevant” track, cruises along nicely thanks to some help by arena rock legend Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora, and Mr. Jovi’s musical style is felt instantly with the opening acoustic riff. “Party Like Cowboyz” wears its carefree nature on its sleeve by replacing an “s” with a “z” (edgy!), touting cheap moonshine and expensive recreational sports vehicles. “Rock the Boat” fairs far better than any song that melds turntables and fiddles has any right to, riding an annoyingly catchy chorus and taking full advantage of the high twang/low bass dynamic of Big & Rich, even if the shoe-horned raps of Cowboy Troy drag the proceedings down. Left Eye, he is not.
The ballads, meanwhile, run the gamut from surprisingly solid (the Bon Jovi-assisted “Can’t Be Satisfied”) to mildly clichéd (“Cheat On You”) to terribly bland (“Last Words”). There’s a distinct Lonestar vibe to the proceedings (no wonder since Rich was a founding member), and honestly if the tracks had been released on solo albums or by a different band I probably wouldn’t have been so averse to the proceedings. But as it were, they seriously don’t fit, and there’s a certain artlessness to the lyrics, always going for the straightforward rhyme and description rather than a creative or poetic slant.
The album ends on a schizophrenic head scratcher called “M-e-d-l-e-y of the Hillbilly Jedi”, which slams together a spoken word intro, a 50’s sock hop ditty, a section with swelling strings, and a very Cole Porter-esque breakdown. Not to mention copious guitar twang. It’s about as confusing as it sounds, and in a way I appreciate the go for broke insanity behind it all. I’d rather listen to it than most of the leisurely ballads that make up half the album.
I’ve jokingly told friends before that modern Nashville country is the sound of the status-quo, so rooted in God and American values that it’s doomed to be unchallenging and without much substance if it wants to keep milking the cash from its target demographic. So the bits of wild experimentation and against the grain goofiness of Hillbilly Jedi make the parts that do conform so rigidly to what country is supposed to be all the more disappointing. My favorite classic country artists are the ones that seemed to have fun with (or at least a sense of humor about) what they did: the Johnny Cashes, Hank Williamses, and, hell, even the Dolly Partons on occasion. At times, Big & Rich embrace their fun-loving, tongue-in-cheek shenanigans with just enough detachment that I want to like what’s going on. But mostly, the album comes across as more of the same stuff you’ve heard on country radio for a decade, and the fact that “That’s Why I Pray” has become their biggest single, likely surpassing even “Save a Horse”, shows that, at least for now, inventiveness has to take a back seat to traditional ballads with ham-fisted religious undercurrents. And that’s a shame.
Overall Grade: C-