William Kenneth Alphin was not impressed with the pool.
“I spent a thousand dollars on that,” Big Kenny said, shaking a head topped by his trademark Montana open crown cowboy hat with a red feather. “Next year, Christopher…”
He stopped and put his hand on my shoulder. A man with a macaw named Tiny Tim was talking to a woman with fishnet covering her pink bikini at the bar. Overhead, the girls of Flaunt, a scantily clad contortionist crew, dangled limberly from a forklift on a pink satin rope.
“Let me tell you a prophecy,” said Kenny, 53, who’s landed 15 songs on the Billboard Hot Country chart. “Do you want that?”
Big Kenny—half of the country duo Big & Rich, famed troubadours of such hits as “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and “Comin' to Your City”—had returned to his stomping grounds in Deadwood, South Dakota, Tuesday, midway through Sturgis Bike Week, to host a pool party at the Lodge, a resort and entertainment center in which he’s an investor.
In 2002, Kenny and John Rich played in a country band in the Buffalo Bar, the oldest bar in the former mountain mining camp. In the Black Hills for the week to work as the South Dakota correspondent with a news service, I’d sped through a storm to get to this party when I saw it advertised on Facebook.
“Have you been writing music lately, Big Kenny?” I asked.
“All the time.”
“So, what kind of…
“No,” he interrupted. “We haven’t gotten to my prophecy yet.”
I saw Big Kenny at the Iowa State Fair in 2005 when I was an intern with Gov. Tom Vilsack. No one else in the office wanted free tickets to Big & Rich, but I did. I liked what I thought was a disco backbeat underneath a twangy, wordplay-driven song featuring. I also liked Big Kenny’s famous chit-chat line on the final verse of “Save a Horse”—practically spoken word for the denim cut-off tailgater in my soul.
What I also liked, though, was that Big Kenny represented what I might tentatively call queer country—or at least some kind of positive dysphoria about commercial Nashville country music. He and Big John palled around with an African-American rapper (Cowboy Troy), a little person named Two-Foot-Fred, and Christmas-lights-year-round-sporting redneck princess Gretchen Wilson. There was a kind of hegemony of peripheral characters that made a new power center with Big & Rich, dubbed the Muzik Mafia.
The lyrics—a play on bike-riding or green-living or something dirtier—were dumb, but watch those videos and you sensed they didn’t believe them. “I’m a thoroughbred / That’s what she said / In the back of my truck bed.” I taught college English for ten years—no one rhymes that way earnestly. That’s irony. It’s cute. It’s funny. It’s anti-pop country, sorta. And then came Florida-Georgia Line and all was ruined.
I’d read somewhere that John Rich was an avowed conservative, but I still held out hope always for Big Kenny as a closet progressive—or at least a cultural rabble-rouser—and had been sorta sad to see less of him over the years. Until he showed up at Deadwood.
“This is Braveheart,” Big Kenny told me, introducing me to a tall Native American man with a backwards baseball cap and sleeveless black T-shirt. “He’s a Marine.” Braveheart shook my hand, and I chatted with two other guys, both Native, following him.
“So how do you guys know Big Kenny?” I asked.
One of the guys in his entourage just shrugged his shoulders.
The requisite pool, behind the stage, sat mostly empty, save for a drunk man floating staring up at the sky and about 14 inflatables. The real show was Big Kenny. And before us, he preened for the camera. For the record, Big Kenny isn’t really big. But his hat is. Big as a silo. He wore tight bell-bottom cut-off jeans over what looked like black suede boots, a sequined black vest over a black T-shirt reading, “The Future Is Bright.” Hardened rallygoers holding $5 beers stood awkwardly waiting for a picture with him. Sunburnt necks. Leather chaps over denim. Then they’d squeeze a smile as Big Kenny flashed devil horns or made a “rocker” pose.
This is now Big Kenny’s job.
When I had told him I was writing for a paper out of Minneapolis, his teeth flashed a wide smile.
“I’ve got an album coming you in late August,” Kenny said. “Here’s my number.”
“Is this your publicist?” I asked.
“That’s mine,” He said. “My name’s Webster.”
Had Big Kenny fallen to doing his own promotions?
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally drags in a number of acts each year. Tuesday night at Buffalo Chip, Lynyrd Skynyrd was supposed to play. They canceled, owing to illness, and so Gary Allan was the fill-in. Other acts included Ozzy, the Doobie Brothers, and Blink-182. (The Rapid City Journal earlier this week ran a big piece on how the Rally is trying to skew younger.)
Down the block, a blues-rocking three-piece from New Orleans pounded away in a bar with an ice-cream pail for tips while nearby bartenders served free shots of flavored vodka. On stage at the pool party, a lariat-shirt-etched bolo-tie-wearing group from Chicago called Wild Earp and the Free For Alls covered Gram Parsons' “Las Vegas” and Prince’s “Kiss,” including a hoe-down-approaching last chorus.
Following around Big Kenny was a young singer with backward blue baseball cap and cut-off-jeans. She was with a local band called High Rise. “We’re wiped from playing four days straight,” said the singer. I figured she fronted a country band.
“We’re reggae,” she said. As if anticipating my puzzlement, she added, “We only got the show because my dad. That guy’s my dad.”
At “that guy,” she pointed to the long white-haired man with a bucket hat filled with veteran pins. Niles Harris, the inspiration for Big & Rich’s patriotic (some say jingoistic) “8th of November.”
Big Kenny had earlier told me the whole party was due to Niles. “Niles was our bartender at the venue, and after he took us down into a couple gold mines on weekends, we got to know each other, and, well, you know, this guy was only 19 years old, and he was thrown into a situation where 30 of them might march in and only three march out alive.”
Jason Klein, assistant entertainment director for the Lodge, told me they usually attract country bands. But he said they’re trying to expand. “We did get Shinedown earlier this year,” he said.
I initially spotted Klein amongst the young, tidy, and tired female bartenders handing out tropical leis to staff and patrons alike and later helping the high-school-aged staff member out of a larger-than-life guitar outfit, after walking around in the 80 degree heat all afternoon. A pool party is exhausting, after all.
As Big Kenny’s pool party climaxed—maybe a hundred patrons drinking while Kenny circulated—hotel officials and Kenny auctioned off a guitar signed by the Lodge’s major guests (including Huey Lewis and the News) for $11,500 and a helmet Big Kenny purchased for $2,500. Proceeds went to the Wounded Warrior Project. At one point, Kenny's personal photographer, Mark E. M. Oswald gave me his business card and told me he was ex-Army.
“I’ve got three hours of sleep the whole week,” he said.
I don’t know what I was hoping for from Big Kenny’s Pool Party—maybe something transcendent. On my way out to the Hills, I drove past a truck pulling a float with “T” “R” “U” “M” “P” in floral letters on the back. “Honk if you support Trump!” read the sign above a Styrofoam Statue of Liberty. (Not sure if the poem was attached). And on Deadwood’s main drag, t-shirt stands sold a denim cut-off with an image of a Harley-riding Trump, complete with dangling chain from his jeans, in front of an image of bikers surrounding Mt. Rushmore.
The big bar in downtown Sturgis is the Loud American. In the summer of 2008, John McCain visited Sturgis and remarked that his wife might win the wet t-shirt contest. Whatever Hunter S. Thompson found in the anarchist bikers back in the 1960s and detailed in Hell’s Angels seems gone today. There’s your staple of Confederate patches, but also a kind of sedentary fatuousness: driving loud motorcycles, eating, drinking on patios, more driving loud motorcycles.
I wanted Big Kenny to break through it all and resurrect his Muzik Mafia roots, maybe tell us something about the direction of country music, or our country, or at least life.
“Look,” Big Kenny said, after he’d taken another photograph with onlookers and found me again. “Life is best when it’s simple. We’re out here today, but all I wanted was the pool to be right here where we’re standing. And…”
“Do you tweet?” I asked Big Kenny, whose accent seemed to diminish the closer he talked to me. “I can maybe see you developing a bigger following if…”
“To tell you the truth,” Kenny said, almost apologetically, “I don’t do much tweeting. I’ve got too many other things coming my way.”
“So what was your prophecy?” I asked, expectantly.
Big Kenny put his hand back on my shoulder and pointed at a pine-tree-lined mountaintop towering over the lodge. This would be his lesson to me.
“A giant Ferris wheel,” Big Kenny said, laughing wildly. “Next year when you come back, Christopher, I promise you, we’ll have one. Wouldn’t that just be it?”
In his sunglasses, I could see a reflection of my own stunned face.
“Do you know these people?” I asked him, before he left.
“I know all of ‘em,” he said, smiling and waving his Stella Artois, his rich Virginian accent loud again as he greeted strangers sitting under the shadow of a shade umbrella.