It started as an informal gig on Tuesdays, the quietest night of the week at most bars.
Big Kenny Alphin, a rock ’n’ roll singer, and John Rich, a country singer, didn’t have a record deal, so they would gather with their friends to play music at the tiny Pub of Love in Nashville.
They called themselves the Muzik Mafia (Musically Artistic Friends In Alliance), and their sessions grew to include a painter, juggler, fire eater, dancing dwarf, rapping cowboy and an unknown singer named Gretchen Wilson.
Word spread, the crowds and the venues got larger, and Big & Rich and Wilson landed recording contracts.
They went on to sell 5 million albums between them — a big reason why country music sales spiked 12 percent last year — and together they account for six nominations at the Feb. 13 Grammy awards.
Big & Rich are up for best country performance by a duo or group for their album, “Horse of a Different Color,” while Wilson is nominated for best new artist, best female country vocal performance, best country song for “Redneck Woman” — an honor she shares with co-writer Rich — and country album of the year for “Here For the Party.”
Those in the industry who didn’t know much about the Muzik Mafia before know a whole lot more now.
Reaching a bigger audience
“It got big real quick,” Alphin said. “It’s awesome to finally have the music out there and to be able to get it to a big audience, to more than our family and friends.”
Country Music Television has been running a six-part weekly series, “Muzik Mafia TV,” that follows the Mafia on tour last year and mixes backstage antics and life on the road with live performances. The series concludes Feb. 19, but all six episodes will be repeated Feb. 22.
“It feels like we haven’t seen a breath of fresh air like this in maybe 10 years,” said Paul Villadolid, vice president of programming and development for CMT. “They are outspoken and seem to be incredible free-thinkers who don’t let boundaries get in the way of the music they want to play.”
Big & Rich’s sound is as unlikely as their sales (2 million and counting). Their debut, “Horse Of A Different Color,” mixes country with rap and rock, echoing a countrified version of Kid Rock. The first single was a thumping rap with sexual overtones called, “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy.”
Alphin scoffs at the suggestion that rap is a new element in country music. “What was Charlie Daniels doing in ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia?’ This stuff has been around forever.”
Wilson is more traditional, but borrows generously from the classic and Southern rock groups she admires. Part of her appeal is her authenticity. The daughter of a teenage mother, she dropped out of school in eighth grade and was cooking and tending bar with her mom at Big O’s tavern in Pocahontas, Ill., by the time she was 14. By 15 she was living on her own and managing the bar with a 12-gauge shotgun for protection. She got her start singing for tips at Big O’s.
Filling a void
“There was a void for that style of music,” said Jeff Walker, owner of Aristo Media, a company that promotes country music videos and singles. “I think the time was right for the Muzik Mafia to hit. There was no artist around at the time like Gretchen Wilson, and Big & Rich brought an innovative style.”
Some have compared the Mafia to the 1970s outlaw movement in country music, which saw the emergence of progressive artists such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings who experimented in their music and spurned Nashville conventions.
Walker thinks those comparisons are too general — and too premature. The outlaw movement was as specific to its time as the Muzik Mafia is to its own. But he adds: “I’m excited about the potential for new artists right now. I think we’ll be seeing more breakthroughs.”
Wilson was the Mafia’s first big success with her single “Redneck Woman,” a defiant anthem of redneck girl power that became a summer staple. When speaking to reporters, she was always quick to praise the Muzik Mafia, which she credits with giving her the support to continue during lean times.
“We all said that whoever gets up there will help pull the others up,” Alphin said. “Her success helped us, and our success helped her.”
'Mafia' remains intact
During the Muzik Mafia tour, Wilson and Big & Rich swapped the headliner role, and every show closed with an extended jam.
Although Big & Rich and Wilson, two anchors of the Muzic Mafia, no longer do weekly club shows, Alphin says the group is very much alive. The core organizational structure of about 10 “Mafia soldiers” is intact and continues with advice and support for members. They still gather for impromptu sessions when schedules allow, and the full Muzik Mafia tour is expected to crank up again later this year.
There also are about a half-dozen splinter groups, “Mafia Misfits,” Villadolid calls them, “the next tier of acts trying to break into the main Muzik Mafia group.”
Warner Bros. is so convinced of the talent in the pipeline that it has started a new imprint, Raybaw Records, which is run by Rich, Alphin and fellow Mafia alums Jon Nicholson and Cory Gierman. Their first release will be from Cowboy Troy, a black rapping cowboy and Mafia member.
Alphin laughs sometimes when he reflects on how things have snowballed since those early gigs at the Pub of Love.
“We just wanted a place we could play and not have to clean up afterward,” he said.