John Rich still vividly remembers the almost-blinding soft, white sand and the sharp burn from a jellyfish sting. It had been a long trip for a 10-year-old boy in the backseat of the family’s Plymouth station wagon, but the payoff was worth it. Stepping barefoot across the beach and splashing into the salty water, this was his first exhilarating encounter with the magical place that some people called the Redneck Riviera. This was Panama City, Florida, in 1984, nearly 1,200 miles away from the wheat fields and desert plains of his hometown of Amarillo, Texas. It seemed like paradise.
“Experiencing that for the first time, hanging on to a raft with my dad, and going over those waves was the greatest time in my life,” Rich recalls. That landmark vacation stuck with him, and so did the nickname attached to that spectacular stretch of the Gulf Coast. This was the ultimate seaside getaway for his kind of people, he thought, those who didn’t have the means for a costly trip abroad to the South of France. “It’s a place that’s celebrated by hard-working people,” he says. “It’s affordable, but it’s also premium at the same time.”
Years later, after Rich became a wildly successful songwriter, producer, and musical artist in Nashville, he thought Redneck Riviera would make a great name for a line of products. He wondered who had the legal rights to the phrase’s trademark. No one did, so he snapped them up.
The story is a bit complicated, but it stands as proof of Rich’s ability to ask the right questions at the right time and not settle for an answer he doesn’t like. He started out with Redneck Riviera t-shirts and caps and has expanded his offerings to include cowboy boots, barbecue sauces, a honky-tonk-style bar in Nashville, and the first-ever American blended whiskey. “The first cases shipped in the middle of 2018, and now we’re in 11,000 stores all over the United States,” he says.
We’re not sure if Rich’s preacher daddy approves of the whiskey, but we know his grandmother did. A couple of years before the professional seamstress passed away in 2020 at the age of 88, she had the final say on the winning blend. “Wow, that’s really smooth,” she told her grandson after a tentative warm-up sip. “I said, ‘How smooth is it, Granny?’ And she threw the whole shot back and slammed the shot glass down on her sewing machine and said, ‘That smooth.’”
Hitting the Big Time
A few years after that memorable experience of wading into the gulf for the first time, Rich’s family relocated to the Nashville area. Just out of high school, the Texan-turned-Tennessean found himself playing bass player and singing in an up-and-coming group called Lonestar. They went on to have some big hit songs, and the band had some bigger ones without him.
Though it’s often been characterized as them parting ways or him deciding to move on to pursue other opportunities, he says he was let go because of conflicts over his attitude as well as the band’s musical direction. “I was this punk kid just out of high school, and they were all 10 to 12 years older and had wives and kids, and they were better musicians who had been out on the road a lot already. I wanted to go out and cut loose, and that wasn’t the vibe they were looking for at that point. I became a rather cantankerous individual, and they finally had enough and said, ‘All right, you’re out of here. Get your stuff off the bus. Goodbye.’”
Months down the line, he watched on TV, at his apartment alone, as the rest of the band performed their blockbuster song “Amazed” on an awards show on national TV. “They made the right decision to fire me, but of course it forced me to go out and decide who I am outside of that band.”
He soon had a recording contract of his own, but his solo album went nowhere. After a fortuitous introduction from a mutual friend, he paired up with another artist who had lots of promise but, at that point, not much success. He was Kenny Alphin—Big Kenny due to his 6-foot-5-inch height. With a height difference of around seven inches, the two were an unlikely duo physically but a great match musically.
Their different styles and influences came together as a complementary mishmash of country, folk, rap, and rock. It doesn’t work on paper, and it’s hard to even describe what they do, but enough people quickly latched onto it that their debut album went triple-platinum and spawned four hit singles. In nearly 18 years together, they have gone on to sell around five million records and have taken home dozens of CMA, AMA, and CMT awards.
Big & Rich borders on being a novelty act at times, such as on their runaway smash hit “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” but the duo shows more depth with emotional tunes like “8tth of November” and “Lost in This Moment.” On the road, their live show quickly became known as a full-blown spectacle with a circus-like flair. “Our attitude in the beginning was, ‘We don’t know if anybody will like it or not, but we’re having fun,’ but you know the rest of the story—our music dug in, and it’s gone on to be very successful,” Rich says.
They have heard the common refrain of “that ain’t country” many times in their career, and he’s completely fine with being a nonconformist. “I think what you’ve got is two really distinct personalities that are very different in a lot of ways, but we do agree on these things: Creativity is king, hard work counts, and have a good time.”
He has had considerable success outside of Big & Rich, too. As a writer or co-writer, he’s had cuts from well-known artists as diverse as Gretchen Wilson (“Redneck Woman”), Jason Aldean (“Why”), Faith Hill (“Mississippi Girl”), Taylor Swift (“The Way I Loved You”), and Wyclef Jean (“Please Man”).
Besides being a multidimensional musical artist and enterprising businessman, Rich is also a popular talk-show host. His interview-based program on FOX Business, which he produces from his own three-story mansion in Nashville, is called The Pursuit! With John Rich. It takes its name from one of our country’s founding principles. “America guarantees us certain unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence,” Rich explains. “They are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So it never guarantees us the right to be happy, or the right to be successful or be popular, it guarantees us the right to pursue those things.” He interprets this as an unlimited opportunity for each of us to try and exhaust our potential.
He’s certainly doing his part, and his guests are other people who have overcome obstacles to find success. These are people that Rich can identify with. As he points out early in our conversation, Rich grew up in a double-wide trailer and did not go to college. His father was a fervent revivalist-style preacher but not the kind you see on TV. To earn enough to support his family (and take them on the occasional vacation to Florida), he moonlighted as a car salesman and a night watchman at a bank and also gave guitar lessons on the side.
“With the show, I sit down with people from all walks of life, all different political backgrounds, as different as you can possibly imagine,” he says, “but the one thing they have in common is they work really hard and have gone through a lot to get to where they are. So it’s everything from athletes to inventors, musicians, innovators, business owners, all the way to a guy who was the biggest drug dealer in Nashville. He was an eighth-grade dropout but while he was in federal prison he studied business, finance and philosophy, theology and psychology and emerged from prison and started a janitorial service that hires hundreds. His name is Robert Sherrill, and he’s inspiring because second chances are what this country’s all about.”
With his Redneck Riviera Bar & BBQ downtown on Broadway, Rich has a high profile around town and so does his 73-foot-tall house on Love Circle, which he calls Mount Richmore. He lives in the modern spacious structure with his wife, Joan, and their two young sons, Colt and Cash.
Besides his talk-show guests and production staff, they also open their home for fundraising events, including musical performances and auctions, that raise money for various charities. One cause that’s particularly close to his heart is Folds of Honor, an organization that pays for college education for people whose parents or spouses were lost in military combat. “To date,” he says, “Redneck Riviera whiskey sales have funded 115 college scholarships through the Folds of Honor, and that’s in a short 2½ years now.”
A Rich Legacy
Rich, who just turned 48, is the kind of guy who believes in leaving something behind as proof that he was here and made an impact. His vast body of music will live on, of course, and he believes that his Redneck Riviera brand will be another lasting legacy. He says the reason the two-word phrase had never been trademarked before he came along and inquired about it is that you can’t trademark the name of a geographical location.
But he argued successfully that the Redneck Riviera is an actual single location such as the Panama City of his childhood. “Come to find out, there are people all over the United States that call their favorite place to hang out the Redneck Riviera. It’s kind of like saying where’s Margaritaville? It’s more of a lifestyle or a state of mind,” he says. “This brand will be around a long time after I am. I look at my two boys, and I think maybe they’ll put their hands on this thing and take it to a whole other level. To me, it’s about celebrating hard work. It stands for things that are way, way bigger than I am.”