Country and rap are not exactly the musical genres one might suspect striking up a cozy alliance.
Oh, it's been done, as shown by the fleeting popularity of such unexpected country stars as Cowboy Troy. But you could say it takes a big man to sort out the true particulars of such seemingly opposing styles before making a serious charge at the charts.
And that man is an Athens, Ga., native by the name of James Farris Brown. Fans know him as Colt Ford.
Built like a wrestler and boasting enough commercial clout to enlist stars Tim McGraw, Craig Morgan, Luke Bryan, Eric Church and Kentucky's own Nappy Roots as collaborators on his new album, Every Chance I Get, Ford is poised to be the first lasting link between Nashville and the world of hip-hop.
"Go to any of these small country towns around Lexington or around anywhere, really, and you will see it," said Ford, who performs Friday night at Buster's Billiards and Backroom. "There will be these kids in their trucks wearing camos and jeans, kids who like hunting and fishing. And they're listening to Toby Keith and Jason Aldean. But they're listening to Lil' Wayne and Ludacris, too.
"People aren't so genre-specific anymore. They just go, 'Do I like the song or do I not like the song?' And that's really all that's going on with my music."
Central Kentucky country stars Montgomery Gentry and John Michael Montgomery were among the first to give nods to Ford's hybrid songs. The duo enlisted him for a remix version of its 2008 hit Roll With Me, and Montgomery helped out on the title tune to Ford's debut album, Ride Through the Country. But it took nearly 10 months for Ride to hit the charts. Ditto for the follow-up single, Cold Beer (cut with hard-core honky-tonker Jamey Johnson), which received an Academy of Country Music Awards nomination in 2010. Cementing the popularity was Aldean's recent cover of Ford's Dirt Road Anthem.
"I've certainly had a different battle to fight than a typical country artist that's coming out will face. Getting on the radio has been hard. I mean, I knew it would be. But I didn't think it would be this hard. You get to the point where you have to say to people, 'OK, I know I don't sound like George Strait.' I understand that. But the great thing is we've already got a George Strait. But if you look back at the history of country music, there have always been artists who have been different from what was going on. Take Hank (Williams) Jr. He wasn't considered country at all for a long time. And in today's radio format, he's almost considered too country.
"I've heard all of that stuff, too. All I ever wanted was a chance to be heard, you know? I'm not a bad guy. I'm a country man. I love God, America, family, friends and the blues. I give everything I've got to the music. All I want is a chance to be heard.
That chance was rewarded in 2010 with the release of Ford's second album, Chicken and Biscuits. It broke into the top 10 of the country charts and the top five on many rap charts. And since its release in May, the album Every Chance I Get has reached the top five on both charts. Even then, there was criticism that bordered on resentment from each camp.
"When Chicken and Biscuits did well, there were people who were like, 'Oh, he just got lucky. There's no way he could pull that off again.' So there was some pressure when we went in the studio for the new album."
Ford refers anyone doubting the artistic validity of his country rap concepts — or, as his bio terms them, "rhythmic sing-speak" — to lessons set down by country stars of yore, specifically the "Luke the Drifter" recordings of Hank Williams Sr., much of the recorded music of Johnny Cash, and the late-'70s Southern-rock hits of Charlie Daniels.
Daniels even pops up on Every Chance I Get via a blue-collar diatribe titled Overworked and Underpaid.
"He has always been one of my heroes," Ford said of Daniels. "I hope 30 years from now, people will talk about me the way they talk about him, and not just from a music standpoint but from a personal standpoint, too. He says what he believes in and doesn't back off from that. That's the kind of man he is and the kind I hope I am, too."