“Did you miss me? Well I ain’t been gone / I been makin’ little babies, I been writin’ big songs.” With these lyrics on “Born Again,” the opening track on Hillbilly Jedi, Big & Rich speak directly to their audience to announce their, um, triumphant return. After a five-year break during which Big Kenny and John Rich worked on their own stuff for awhile, Big & Rich (with occasional help from Bon Jovi and Cowboy Troy) are bursting back onto the stage as though they had never left, attempting to prove that they are as “big and rich” as ever.
The nagging question is: should they even have come back?
Okay, time for some straight talk. Ever since Big & Rich broke onto the country scene in 2004 with “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” their whole schtick was one of caricature. They were a countrified version of the hip-hop swagger, bigger than life, richer than God, celebrating money and women, full of self-indulgence—with the occasional tongue-in-cheek religious reference thrown in for good measure. This was an act to have fun with, never one to be taken all that seriously. So when the duo announced a break five years ago, it didn’t feel like a mournful thing—it just felt like the end of a good party.
Times have changed, and the overall tone of country music (like it always does) is changing with it. Yes, country still embraces the party songs, the drinking songs, and the cheating songs (as well as plenty of love songs), but somehow the mindless self-indulgence vibe doesn’t fit anymore. So to be honest, this new record Hillbilly Jedi comes across like Big & Rich have jumped back onto the world stage as though we were all just waiting with baited breath for them to come back. Only we aren’t—and in fact, given the state of the world, banging this old drum actually comes across as slightly offensive.
Perhaps as even further indication that this band is out of touch, consider the lead single “That’s Why I Pray,” released last May. Taken on its own, this is a touching ballad, and probably the only moment on the record that could have been taken seriously. Sigh—if only John Rich hadn’t rather tastelessly tied it to the Aurora theater shooting via Twitter. Forget the fact that this beautiful song has no real context with the rest of the album—putting it in the wrong context with current events essentially ruined the moment.
That being said, I have a hard time saying that Big & Rich is entirely without merit; at the very least, they are great musicians, and they could find a way to reinvent themselves to be more accommodating to the season. But Hillbilly Jedi is not that reinvention. It’s just a recycling of an old schtick, a feeble attempt to revive a party everyone already went home from. And it doesn’t go over well.