In the eight years since “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” cracked the Top 10 at country radio, a legion of Jason Aldeans, Luke Bryans, and the Farms have tried and failed to recapture the fearlessness and creative genre-blurring of Big & Rich’s signature hit. But what albums like Hillbilly Jedi, the duo’s first outing since 2007’s pandering Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace, have repeatedly proven is that Big & Rich themselves are as ill-prepared as anyone to replicate that song’s success. But it’s not just that the tracks on Hillbilly Jedi pale in comparison to one of the finest singles of the aughts: They’re spectacularly poor on their own merits, filled with clichés and garish, overwrought production.
The album kicks off with the de facto mission statement of “Born Again,” on which Big & Rich claim they’ve “put the lightning back in the jar,” but their collaboration with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora and the song’s thundering hard-rock arrangement suggest the duo either has no idea what that expression actually means or, if they do, how it would reflect on their own career. Only “Rock the Boat,” which uses a looped fiddle line to create a hip-hop-inspired rhythm track, makes any real attempt to play with genre signifiers in a progressive way, but it lacks a memorable hook and includes a typically tin-eared guest bit from Cowboy Troy. The remainder of the album’s uptempo cuts are simply loud for the sake of being loud. “Cowboyz” buries its fiddle so far beneath its screaming electric guitars that they probably shouldn’t have bothered using the instrumental at all, while Big Kenny and John Rich have to shout to be heard over the arena-rock bluster of “Get Your Game On.”
The set’s ballads fare even worse. Lead single “That’s Why I Pray”—which Rich deplorably tried to cross-promote with the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado on his Twitter account—lacks any semblance of conflict or struggle behind its religious platitudes and relies on a scattershot list of social ills to create its thin context. The dreary melody on “Lay It All on Me” doesn’t fit on what’s ostensibly an uplifting love song, while Rich’s breathless delivery on “Last Words” borders on camp. Big & Rich have rarely been able to carry “serious” material, and their performances here aren’t compelling enough to mask how poorly written songs like “That’s Why I Pray” and “Cheat on You” are.
Big & Rich first announced themselves by declaring that “someone’s got to lead the freak parade,” but they’ve moved ever closer to the mainstream with each passing album. The only trace of weirdness on Hillbilly Jedi is the “M-E-D-L-E-Y of the Hillbilly Jedi” that closes the album, shifting wildly through a host of country styles as Big Kenny vamps and croons a series of non sequiturs. It’s not a great standalone track, and it’s safer and less oddball than the material on Kenny’s The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy, but its relative ballsiness highlights the lack of creativity and inspiration on the rest of Hillbilly Jedi. Ultimately, the only thing noteworthy about the album is that George Lucas allowed Big & Rich to refer to themselves as Jedis.