Big Kenny Sows Seeds of Solo Success
Big Kenny Alphin is known almost as much for the causes he champions as the music he makes, as well as for spreading the gospels of “Love Everybody” and “Music with No Boundaries.” It should come as no surprise, then, that when he released his first solo Country album, The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy, in November 2009, these themes would surface in his tunes.
“Getting to this point was an amazing journey for me,” said Big Kenny. “I’m finally able to speak to everyone in song and lyric about where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, where I come from, the great lessons I’ve learned and the great glory that music has brought to my life and this place where I am now. I feel I’ve been blessed with this music, that I can entertain tens of thousands or millions of people but that I can do good things with it too. We can all do that. Music is this great common denominator that allows us all to come together and express ourselves in a good way and be respected for it.”
Big Kenny was born and raised in Culpeper, Va., where he worked on the family farm and ran his own construction company. When the recession of the late 1980s set in, he was forced to cut his payroll from 75 employees to two — himself and one other man. Luckily, at the same time, someone noticed him singing along to the radio and informed him that people got paid to write songs in Nashville.
“I laid my hammer down and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. People get paid to write songs?’ And he said yeah,” Big Kenny remembered. “So for the next year I contemplated it. It was like, ‘What an idea. I’ve got to see this.’ I had never considered moving outside my state at that point in my life. I stayed in Culpeper long enough to make sure everything was running smoothly on the farm. Then I told my dad, ‘I think I want to go to Nashville and try the music business.’ I know that must have surprised him, but he said, ‘Son, go right ahead. I can still take care of this place.’ Now when he sees me, he always lets me know he’s proud of what he and I have done — and he also lets me know that at 80 he can still run that farm. He’s been a tremendous influence on me.”
In leaving Culpeper, Big Kenny brought with him the seeds of a musical style that would blossom fully on The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy. “I grew up with AM radio, where they mixed Merle Haggard, Pink Floyd, George Jones, Queen, Bill Withers, Willie Nelson, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Kansas and Steve Miller Band alongside each other,” he explained.
This background primed Big Kenny to react immediately on arriving in Nashville in 1984. “I stayed in a hotel on West End for about a month,” he recalled. “I saw music the first night I came here and my jaw was on the floor. I couldn’t believe it. Nashville is such a great beacon of creativity, and I want everybody to know that so they can come here and be inspired as I was inspired and maybe they can go around the world and inspire others.”
That privilege came Big Kenny’s way through his writing credit on Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown,” Tim McGraw’s “Last Dollar (Fly Away),” Gretchen Wilson’s “Here for the Party” and other successful songs. It was amplified onstage and in the studio through Big & Rich, his duo with John Rich. But their travels brought him face to face with the sorrows as well as the beauty of the people and countrysides they visited. Those impressions, tempered by the influences of his diverse musical heroes, paved his path toward The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy. In fact, the album takes listeners on a vivid tour through Big Kenny’s imagination.
Consisting of 10 songs co-written by Big Kenny and two with his credit alone, it starts with the electrifying chant of the Blackfoot Confederacy that kicks off the opening track, “Wake Up,” written with Brad Arnold and Jon Nicholson, dances through a hymn to down-home cuisine with “Fried Corn and Chicken Bread (Be Back Home),” written with Adam Shoenfeld and Judson Spence, and closes with a good-vibe, solo-written sing-along called “Share the Love.”
“With this album, I feel like it is the first time I got to the place where I was going to do it no matter what,” he said. “This record is an expression of music I love. I wrote 150 songs, recorded 50 and then started honing them down into what I wanted to say in this one record. The songs come from a lot of places, so I let them keep coming. I knew I was finally finished with it when everybody around me told me I was finished — ‘just put it out.’ I was like, ‘I want to cut a few more songs.’ I love the creative process, but I love performing, so when it got to the point where I wanted to get out and perform the songs, I knew they were right.”
Knowing how important it was to recruit a strong team to support his solo excursion, Big Kenny brought CAA (Creative Artists Agency) onboard as his booking agency, Bigger Picture Group for radio promotion, distribution, sales and marketing, Red Light Management to help direct his solo career and Wortman Works, which had also worked with Big & Rich, for publicity.
For each member of this team, a primary goal was to utilize the impressions Big Kenny had already made through Big & Rich while transitioning him toward a solo career. “We started early on, building Kenny’s Web presence with BigKenny.TV, a social networking site to build more direct connection with Big & Rich fans and to get them engaged in Kenny’s solo work,” said Bob Cahill, Partner, Bigger Picture Group. “We had the benefit of John (Rich) already having his solo album out (Son of a Preacher Man, on Big & Rich’s record label Warner Bros.) and being able to provide his perspective on things. Kenny is a different individual and has his own unique point of view. The thing that makes them unique as a duo gives their solo work its special perspective as well.”
Big & Rich toured this past summer, which not only put Big Kenny in front of the duo’s fans but also gave him and Rich the opportunity to perform selections from their individual albums. “This reinforced them as a duo but gave them a viable vehicle to also show that they are unique individuals with their own messages and talents,” Cahill said. “We did tap into existing e-mail lists that John and Kenny share access to. Warner Bros. has also been very supportive and helpful in moving the ball forward.”
For Big Kenny and his colleagues, The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy is a long-term and ongoing project, with horizons beyond the life of the singles released from it. “When we released the album, we expected the first single, ‘Long After I’m Gone,’ to be in the mid 20s on the chart, and that’s not what most record labels would do,” Cahill said. (Released in August, “Long After I’m Gone,” written by Big Kenny, Marc Beeson and Richie Supa, debuted at No. 57 and peaked at No. 34.)
“We view the project as a whole and unusual piece of work,” he continued. “While we hope for multiple hit singles, we think it’s important to get the album out there early on. We didn’t want to wait until it peaks in February. We think the album has a story to tell, and we want to give fans the opportunity to recognize that. So while we’re very happy with where we are, we think it’s important that we have an 18-to- 24-month kind of perspective, and the industry can expect us to stick with it long-term so that the various messages the album contains get out there.”
The album’s most innovative marketing move may be the CD packaging. “Those who know Kenny know the causes that are important to him, and one of those is to leave the planet a better place than you found it,” Cahill said. “In light of that, Kenny had the vision to do something different than what had been done before. A lot of people use recyclable materials in their package, but this package is compostable and plantable.”
Twenty-seven varieties of seeds for some of the singer/songwriter’s favorite wildflowers are embedded into the cardboard that contains his CD. “You can keep the sleeve or load the music into your iPod and throw the sleeve out in your garden or flower bed, and it will grow,” Cahill said. “It is a good message to get out there, and we hope it will gain some attention so maybe other manufacturers of packaged goods will consider this kind of approach.”
By Vernell Hackett
© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.