“Country music without prejudice” flag-bearers Big & Rich have made a career out of being that wacky, wild brother who can ‘walk-the-line’ but chooses to instead pursue other pathways in life. “Horse of a Different Color” announced the arrival of a new breed of country music ‘outlaw’ who mixed multiple genres into an appealing yet flawed amalgam of genres. The duo’s song “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy” propelled them to superstar status and their second album “Comin’ To Your City” kept the duo of Big Kenny and John Rich there. While not featuring any huge hits, the record featured great songs with fantastic videos. All of this set the stage for Big & Rich’s third album, “Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace.”
Leading off the record is the duo’s first genuine Top Ten hit. “Lost In A Moment” manages to become the summer of 2007’s first wedding anthem while not diverting to vomit-inducing lyrics. If there’s one thing that Big & Rich have always excelled at, it’s the ballads. Sure, the ass-kickin’ songs put butts in the seats and sold the records but the ballads are what showed to country labels and, more importantly, radio that the duo is for real. Also what helps sell the song is the fact that John Rich sings all the lead vocals and the high-low vocal delivery that the duo has was left to the chorus.
Breaking with traditional country music album structure (of leading off and alternating a record with ‘up-tempo ravers’ and ballads), Big & Rich have placed five ballads (and two song intros) in the first half of the record and left the ‘ravers’ for the 2nd half (or as Big Kenny puts it, “Side 2”). The title track “Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace” is a pure Big & Rich, MOR balladry but the duo has strong lyrical acumen (Big Kenny wrote Tim McGraw’s “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” while John Rich writes for virtually every hit making artist these days) that, serves the duo well. “Faster Than Angels Fly” is a slow-paced ballad with beautiful fiddle breaks and U2-ish guitars while John Legend (yes, that John Legend) provides an a capella intro into the pretty piano-based love ballad “Eternity.” It doesn’t re-write any book about love songs but the pop-based melody (written by Big Kenny and fiddler Jonathan Yukdin) helps present a compelling future radio hit.
“Radio” begins the ‘tempo portion of the disc and it features a fiddle playing guitar parts while the lead guitar (played by co-writer Adam Shoenfeld) gives the song a distinct 1980’s hair band feel. But, just to make sure people know that this isn’t some retro act the duo sings “We like our fiddles and guitars loud.” And, indeed, they do as the fiddle and guitar both manage to snare instrumental breakdowns before Beatles-esque piano backs the bridge. It’s a sugary pop-rock song that should’ve led off the record. One thing the duo could stop doing though, is to leave out their names in any songs they do. “You Never Stop Lovin’ Somebody” is a co-write between Lyric Street recording artist Marcel and Big & Rich and it could very well be the ‘up-tempo’ hit from the record. Marcel is a witty, hip-hop-like writer in that he can put rhymes and words together painlessly while Big Kenny and John Rich know how to make intricate genre bending melodies. Still, somehow, this up-tempo ballad ends up being the most middle-of-the road radio ready song either of the three may have ever come up with. With a progressive, toe-tappin’ melody, Big and Rich manage to make a song that has a mandolin (of all country instruments) take the lead guitar parts on the song and helps create an emotional center of “High Five”. “Please Man” features an awkward guest vocal from Wyclef Jean that is just out of place, even on a Big & Rich record. Sure the humorous refrain of “Please man, don’t call the police man” helps pick the song up a but if Willie Nelson proved anything, Reggae and country music don’t mix. The cover of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” should’ve worked but somehow the straight-up, traditional country reading has me thinking that Big & Rich listened one too many times to the Hayseed Dixie version. It’s horrid and these two songs help drag down what was an otherwise enjoyable record. “Loud” does find B&R heading back into their metal-leaning ways (with wah-wah lead guitars and all!) but it, too only works for a live, concert setting.When it’s all said and done, Big & Rich has created a record that’s not unlike their other two releases but the fact that the record was placed into two decided halves only hurts the pacing of the record. It’s as if the duo realizes that they are, indeed, a better ‘singles’ artist and that the track placement of the album doesn’t really matter. Still, there’s enough here to recommend but it isn’t gonna convert many of the duo’s detractors to their side of the fence.