Cover Story

Meet The Alphins: 

Culpeper's Country Connection

 

by Audrey Hingley, Contributing Writer

Like other "overnight successes," Kenny Alphine's rise to fame took a decade. Unlike others, Alphin hda a big advantage: his parents, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative members Bill and Mary Alphin.

Like other “overnight successes,” Kenny Alphin’s rise to fame took a decade. Unlike others, Alphin had a big advantage: his parents, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative members Bill and Mary Alphin.

 

“Big Kenny” Alphin is one-half of Big & Rich, one of country music’s hottest new duos. A handsome guy with blonde hair, he notes, “My parents love me as deeply as possible and have always been behind me and supported me, no matter what. Without their support, I don’t know where I’d be.”

A long-time member of the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative Board of Directors, the Culpeper School Board, the Virginia Farm Bureau board, and an active, involved member of Culpeper Baptist Church, Bill Alphin is a cattle farmer who embarked on a new career in insurance when he was in his 40s. He exudes a sense of quiet strength. Mary Alphin, who speaks with a genteel Southern voice, is a natural promoter of her son’s music, a TCB (taking care of business) kind of mom who enjoys meeting her son’s fans.

Kenny fondly recalls growing up on a farm that’s been in his mother’s family since the 1700s with siblings Charleene, Robert, and Wallace.

“I could fix anything or tear apart anything, because it’s a farm, and you have to,” says Kenny. “You have to keep everything running, everything fed. It taught me so much. It was such a blessing.”

Bob Yeaman, an attorney in Culpeper who was Kenny’s Sunday school teacher, says, “Kenny had a lot of personality, he was not shy at all. He’s very

outgoing, like his mother, but he also has a lot of the solid, steady ways of his father, who is a salt-of-the-earth person with a warm heart.”

Kenny, who sports a variety of hats and relentless energy onstage, and his Stetson-

wearing musical partner John Rich, describe their sound as “music without prejudice,” a fusion of country, rap (dubbed “hick hop”), and rock. Their stage act includes “Cowboy Troy,” a multilingual, 6-foot, 5-inch black “cowboy rapper,” “Two-Foot Fred,” a little person who’s really 3 feet tall, and Rachel Kice, a painter who creates paintings as the band plays.

The combination is working: their debut album, “Horse Of A Different Color,” was

"Big" Kenny Alphin shares a light moment with his dad before a Nashville concert date

 certified platinum (one million in sales) a short time after its release and now has gone double platinum.

Even as a youngster, Kenny was

artistic, creative, and had a knack for entrepreneurship. Mary recalls, “When he wanted money, he’d say, ‘Mama, what can I do to make money?’ I saw his talents when he was a little thing. I used to say he had more God-given talent than any one child needed.”

Kenny Alphin and his dad Bill.

By the time he’d finished high school, Kenny had operated a variety of businesses, including selling printed T-shirts and running a logging crew. Opting not to attend college, he started building houses, becoming a successful real estate developer before age 25. But when a real estate recession hit, it hit Kenny hard, sending him into bankruptcy.

“I’ve been through a lot in my 41 years, through the rise and fall of one career already. I built up quite a bit and then lost it all,” Kenny admits. “But it taught me so much, and if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be sitting here now.”

Mary says, “I could tell when he would send me songs from Nashville that he was writing down what had happened [in his life]. That’s how he got over [everything], he was writing it out.”

Kenny Alphin celebrating his 13th birthday in Culpeper.

Kenny’s music career began almost by chance when friends dared him to sing at a northern Virginia club. After his performance, a stranger asked if he wanted to join a band.

“It’s 13 years since I started playing in a band, and I haven’t had a job other than that since then. The year after I got to Nashville, I got my first publishing deal, which paid me as a [song]writer and supported me,” he says.

Kenny with his mom, Gretchen Wilson, and John Rich.

Mary Alphin vividly remembers her son’s first trip to Nashville: “He went around Thanksgiving 1993, and was so excited [when he returned] … he met Charley Pride and Porter Wagoner, and somebody invited him to Thanksgiving dinner. He was taken in by the friendliness.”

Kenny moved in 1994. His quest was a struggle, Mary remembers: “I asked him once whatever became of a cement mixer [truck] he had, and he said, ‘Mama, that paid my rent one month.’ ”

Mary laughs that while driving she played demo CDs Kenny sent her: “I’d put them in the car and when I’d go downtown, I would be harmonizing with them!”

Kenny Alphin and his mother.

“In Nashville you knock on doors, make demos, and try to get someone to listen to you,” Kenny explains.

What kept him going amid the thousands of wanna-be singers who migrate to Nashville each year?

“I just loved doing it. I really enjoy playing music, I enjoy being around creative people, and I really found a home among those kind of people. That continually inspired me,” he replies. “In high school, I got to go to the Virgina Governor’s School for the gifted, and it was one of the most awesome experiences of my life; it brought some of the same sort of thing to me.”

Success beckoned in 1998 via a solo deal with Hollywood Records but ultimately fizzled. When Kenny met John Rich, formerly of the country group Lonestar, something clicked. Pursuing separate careers, the duo became friends and songwriting partners. Casual jam sessions led to the “Muzik Mafia” (Musically Artistic Friends In Alliance), a group of musicians sharing their music at a Nashville club. The shows grew, attracting hundreds, including prominent singers like Martina McBride. The “Mafia” birthed not only Big & Rich, but fellow star Gretchen Wilson, whose debut album “Redneck Woman” has sold millions.

Ironically, when Big & Rich were finally signed to a Warner Brothers deal, they thought they were meeting to pitch songs for other artists to record.

“I got impatient after awhile,” Mary says. “Bill and I both did, we worried if he was selling himself short, telling himself something that wasn’t going to happen. But I felt deep in my heart he was going to make it.”

When asked what a Big & Rich concert is like, Bill replies in a deadpan voice with a twinkle in his eye: “It’s loud.” A persistent photographer who says she’s “always taking pictures of my children,” Mary says the hardest part of Kenny’s success is dealing with concert security people who try to bar her picture-taking.

Bill says he hopes Big & Rich’s music will “direct kids in the right direction.”

He describes Kenny as “a very loving guy with a deep faith, a fun-loving person willing to give and to share.”

“This [success] has happened so fast, but from what I’ve seen he hasn’t changed,” Bill observes. “It’s hard to believe what has happened. I think he’s happy because he’s doing something he enjoys doing.”

One price of musical success is a frantic pace. Kenny admits, “I am a little more worn out. We did 120 dates in less than five months.”

After years of fantasizing about success, how does the reality compare to the fantasy?

“It’s harder than I ever imagined. I’ve done nothing but work hard my whole life. I was brought up by the hardest-working man in the world, my father, but it’s even more than you can imagine,” he explains. “We have 65 people out here [on the road] right now, nine buses, four or five tractor-trailers … it takes such a team of people to pull this off. It’s more than just me and John singing.”

Kenny enjoying a bite to eat in Nashville when he was still a struggling unknown artist.

He adds, “If I could give anybody a piece of advice, focus all your energy and time on being as great as you can possibly be, and when it gets good enough, everything you have ever wanted will come to you. The mountain will come to Mohammed.”

Kenny confirms that Big & Rich are talking with Warner Brothers about starting their own label, noting that it’s important for him to see other people realize their dreams.

“I try to put as much energy as I can into it, and I think the label realized it was an opportunity for them,” he says. “We operate differently … we’re about the art, the creativity. It just so happens that we’re businessmen, too.”

Asked if she’s proud of her son’s success, Mary emphasizes she’s proud of all her children: Charleene, who appears in Big & Rich’s “Holy Water” video, buys houses and remodels them for resale; Robert is a computer consultant; and Wallace is a civil engineer.

“I look at this [music] as Kenny’s job,” she explains. “He’s worked real hard to get here.”

Before a sold-out Tennessee concert, in the backstage world of tour buses, hangers-on, and crewmembers, “Mama” Alphin and Bill are unpacking a loaded van for their own version of a tailgate party. Mary has prepared homemade soup, cookies, and other tempting food for her son and his band. A CMT (cable TV network Country Music Television) crew is hovering, filming for a spring 2005 Big & Rich TV special.

In this moment of quiet before the roar of another crowd welcomes Big & Rich, the Alphins take center stage as they gather people together and lead grace before eating. The Alphins, unfazed by celebrity and hoopla, are simply doing what their son Kenny does.

They are being themselves.

 

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