‘Big Kenny' Alphin, Culpeper's country music superstar
"I don't believe in getting off the playing field"
By Audrey T. Hingley
"Big Kenny" Alphin's energy puts most people half his age to shame. Alphin, 46, cheerfully admits to having "eight jobs," including overseeing his new Nashville-based music company and releasing a new solo CD, The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy. The kinetic singer/songwriter and self-proclaimed company CIO ("chief imagination officer") wears multiple hats onstage - and in real life.
"I don't believe in getting off the playing field," he says. "I think you do all you can till you can't do it anymore."
The Culpeper native burst onto the music scene in 2004 as one-half of the eclectic duo Big & Rich. He and musical partner John Rich took the music world by storm with their "country music without prejudice" fusing of country, rap and rock. Their success has produced four albums, sold-out concerts and a slew of awards.
In March, Rich released a solo CD, Son of a Preacher Man, on Warner Brothers, but Alphin has taken a different route.
"I got out of Warner completely as a solo artist and put my whole team together. I was at a place in my life where I didn't want to ask permission," he says. "Now I run my own show. If I'm sitting in L.A. and decide to cut a video tomorrow, I'll cut a video. You could never work like that in the normal label system, where everything had to go through some committee."
The video illustration is an apt one: That's just what Alphin did. In Los Angeles for meetings last May, he "decided to catch a perfect spring day in Virginia" and returned to his parents' large working cattle farm to film the video for Long After I'm Gone, his new single.
"No matter where I go, Virginia is still home. There's just something real comforting about being on the farm. I made the decision one day and did it the next," he says of the video featuring breathtaking vistas of his parents' lush farm and shots of Alphin with wife Christiev, son Lincoln, and parents Bill and Mary Alphin. "We wrote it, directed it and filmed it right there on the spot with no plan."
Alphin adds: "Farming has its ups and downs, but, boy, when I go back there and see it as everyone does in the video, I think it looks pretty doggone close to heaven. It really was quite an idyllic way to grow up."
The seeds of Alphin's success were sown as he was growing up with siblings Charleene, Robert and Wallace, overseen by parents who emphasized Christian faith, family and hard work.
"I never saw anybody around me with dust growing on them," Alphin admits. "My dad still works as hard as he can go."
Longtime farm employee George Ellis observes: "Kenny was determined not to be outdone. If somebody was lifting a bale of hay, he would roll 'em if he couldn't lift 'em."
By the time Alphin finished high school, he'd operated a variety of businesses. When he was in his early 20s, he ran a construction/development business until a real estate recession sent him into bankruptcy. Steve Southard, senior vice president with Virginia Community Bank in Culpeper, worked with Alphin then and recalls, "If you want to succeed, you can't be afraid to fail, and Ken was not afraid to fail. He always focused on the positive."
Close friend Paul Bates, who owns Bates Body & Repair, says, "Ken has always been the type of person who would go after what he set his mind to ... he would get these big ideas and not let up."
Bates remembers Alphin making a prosthetic arm for a high school physics project: "It had fingers on it, a motor to let the fingers move, and we fiberglassed it. ... His mind was just on a different level than most people."
Alphin's music career started after he was dared to sing at a Northern Virginia club. Afterward, a stranger asked if he wanted to join a band, and the die was cast. He moved to Nashville in 1994 and in 1995 inked a songwriting/music publishing deal. A 1998 recording deal with Hollywood Records ultimately fizzled, but when Alphin met Rich something clicked.
Mary Alphin admits there were times she and Bill wondered if Kenny was fooling himself: "We heard he was living off credit cards. John later said Kenny had $140,000 in credit card debt, and he wasn't far behind [when Big & Rich hit]. But Ken never said anything to us about it [money problems]."
Bates recalls, "He always had an optimistic outlook. Sometimes I'd think he just doesn't want to accept the fact that he's a little too old to go to Nashville. The odds were against him. But Ken has the gift of gab and charisma; he could strike up a conversation with anybody. I think that has a lot to do with his success."
His father also modeled later-life career success, beginning a 20-year insurance career in his mid-40s while continuing to farm.
Alphin, whose first marriage ended in divorce, married stylist Christiev Carothers in 2005, becoming a stepfather to her two sons from a previous marriage. Friends say the birth of son Lincoln, now 4, has "grounded" Alphin.
Asked if parenthood has changed his perception of his own parents, Alphin replies with a hearty laugh: "Heck, yeah. I gave my parents hell! I was a kid; I didn't know. I love my wife completely, and Lincoln ... it's a crazy kind of love I've never experienced and can't explain. It [parenthood] has made me stronger and more enlightened to the world around me."
He's joined musicians such as Sheryl Crow in Music Saves Mountains, an effort to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and is helping fund doctors in Appalachia via a nonprofit called Hope Through Healing Hands. Moved by the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, Alphin is also involved with My Sister's Keeper, a nonprofit whose projects include a Sudanese school for girls and medical clinic.
Alphin says to fellow boomers, "I'm sure everybody goes through discouragement; I'm not saying I haven't. But the way you deal with it is the choices you make. If someone wants to talk themselves out of something, they'll find a reason. But if someone wants to go after their life's passion, and that passion can also be their life's work, that's a pretty good thing. I firmly believe that anyone is capable of finding that place in life."
Audrey T. Hingley is a Richmond-based freelance writer.