What the heck is a Motor City rebel doing in the Western-lifestyle-loving pages of Cowboys & Indians? This part-time Nashville cat is a better fit than you might think.
As he proudly proclaimed back in “Bawitdaba,” his rap-metal smash hit of 1999: His name is Kid Rock. But there’s more than a touch of country in his heart — and in his music.
“You know, I’ve never made a country album,” the 44-year-old musical maverick concedes, “and I don’t plan to. But I have been standing on the corner in Nashville, after having several hits on country radio, and hearing everybody say, ‘Who ate the last Twinkie?’ And I’m standing on that corner with cream filling on my lip.”
Indeed, although he originally attracted attention with rock-the-house hybrids of rap, hip-hop, and Southern rock on albums like Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast (1990) and Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp (1996), Kid Rock started adding country flavor to the mix as early as 1998, when he included “Cowboy” (a country-rap tune credited with influencing Jason Aldean, Big & Rich, and other Nashville stars) and “Only God Knows Why” (a weary road ballad later covered by David Allan Coe) among the prime cuts on his breakthrough album, Devil Without a Cause.
But wait, there’s more: “Picture,” a duet with Sheryl Crow introduced on Kid Rock’s Cocky album, was nominated for Vocal Event of the Year at the 2003 Country Music Association Awards. And “All Summer Long,” his all-time biggest hit single, reached No. 4 on the country charts — and inspired a hilarious music video that received heavy airplay on Country Music Television and won the 2009 CMT Award for Best Wide Open Country Video of the Year.
Don’t misunderstand, though. Kid Rock isn’t likely to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry anytime soon. And while he’s such an enormous fan of The Man in Black that he actually has a song titled “Johnny Cash” on his latest album, First Kiss, he has no plans to walk the line as a pure (or even an impure) country artist for the rest of his career.
“I never want to be labeled,” Kid Rock says. “I just love music, from rap to rock-and-roll to country and everything in between. It’s just kind of been a blend that I’ve really enjoyed — trying to hold onto my craft and be a scholar of the music at the same time.”
He’s been at it since he was a teenager in Michigan. Born Robert James “Bob” Ritchie, the future Kid Rock grew up north of Detroit in the rural village of Romeo, as the son of William “Bill” Ritchie, owner of several local auto dealerships, and Susan Ritchie, whom he credits with instilling in her son a spirit of philanthropy. (The Kid Rock Foundation raises funds for various worthy causes, including a recent campaign to send “Kid Rock care packages” to U.S. military personnel stationed overseas.) He didn’t come from a musical family — well, not unless you count a grandmother who occasionally performed a Minnie Pearl tribute act in her community. And when young Bob announced his plans to launch a showbiz career as a club DJ, you could say his parents were a tad skeptical.
“There was not a lot of support there,” Kid Rock says, “and I understand why. I was very young, and I’m on the other side of town doing parties and shows with turntables and these things. And they were like, ‘You don’t even play an instrument. What are you doing?’ ” Still, he pressed on, branching out to include singing and rapping in his stage act. He signed his first record deal when he was 17.
Kid Rock is the first to admit that the story of his success is not exactly a rags-to-riches saga. “I had a very, very comfortable upbringing,” he says, “and I’m not ashamed at all to say I was raised in a very upper-middle-class family. My father likes to joke that I’m the only rock star he knows of who doesn’t have to support his parents.” At the same time, however, he takes pride in knowing that he has reached the point in his career, and his life, where money is no object.
“I get asked a lot: ‘What’s the best thing about making it big in this business? Is it getting tickets to shows, or nice tables in restaurants? All the accolades?’ And when I really think about it, I say no. The best thing is, when I wake up in the morning every day, I don’t have to think about money. That is a blessing in itself right there.”
We had our own questions to ask Kid Rock, and he was gracious enough to sit down and answer them just before the release of First Kiss.
C&I: Let’s go back a little bit. Like many recording artists, you had your lean years, your early struggles. You had to put up with being dropped by one record label before getting picked up by another. At what point early on did you think you really could make a living in music?
Kid Rock: [Laughs.] Thinking back on it now — which I haven’t done a lot until you brought it up — I think the only reason I thought I could do that was because I saw other people doing it. I was always a big believer in myself. The way I was raised, if you work hard enough, you stay focused, and you’re honest with yourself, anything’s possible. At a young age, I knew I had this bug and I knew I was prepared to work hard enough no matter how long it took. I hate to say it, but I put all my eggs in one basket. I didn’t have anything to fall back on. Failure wasn’t really an option. To me, it was just a matter of time.
C&I: Do you remember a specific gig, or a specific record, when it really hit you that, OK, maybe I won’t be a superstar, but ...
Kid Rock: I could make a living at this?
C&I: Yes. You could maybe raise a family, buy a home ... .
Kid Rock: Well, I was a hustler from a young age. Whether it was selling tapes out of my basement and designing T-shirts or setting up my own light show and traveling around this country for years with a U-Haul trailer and a minivan. I think the realization that I had made it — there were little hints of it all the way along. Like when I would do a show at some place and there would be 25 people there; then I would come back next time and there’d be 75.
Even when I got knocked back by getting dropped by record companies, there was always still this base — just very small, just in my surrounding areas in Michigan, a little bit of Ohio, and certain spots in Illinois —that I was always building. A few more people would show up every time I went to a place. And that was kind of a gauge for me, telling me that if we’re getting more people here each time, then I’m doing something right.
But to get back to your question: It really didn’t happen for me probably until when I put out an independent record with a small loan and sold 14,000 copies out of my basement. Then I got picked up by Atlantic Records and I got a check for $150,000. I knew with that check, they were making an investment in me. And I had a real shot. I finally had a real shot. I wasn’t going to blow that. The pressure was on, and I gave it everything I had. That was when I put out Devil Without a Cause, which sold 14 million copies. I looked at what was going on in the business, and rap-rock was very popular. And I knew I could do it in my sleep better than anybody else that was doing it. But it wasn’t really all what I wanted to do. So I touched on [country] with “Only God Knows Why” and “Cowboy,” which ended up working out. Thank God.
C&I: When you’re not on the road or in the recording studio, where do you like to spend your downtime?
Kid Rock: I have a farm in Alabama with Hank Jr. I love it there. We hunt and fish a lot. And I have other little spots all over. Like, I have a little spot in Florida where I love to golf and go out and fish. I love to just spend time with friends. I’m not someone who has to go to a resort and lie around and drink margaritas. That’s not what I like to do.
I actually just bought a new property in Nashville. I have 100 acres there. It’s a beautiful place, staring right down at the city. I put a double-wide trailer on it. That makes two double-wides I have now: one in Alabama and one in Nashville. I absolutely love them. They’re very simple, easy to take care of. I’ve passed the stage where I need to have Sub-Zero refrigerators or high-end stoves or furniture. I buy what’s at the upper end of what the middle class buy. They go to Best Buy and get their best refrigerator, maybe a Maytag or something. I’m done with the show of having to be where I’m constantly bragging, “Hey, look what I’ve got.” That’s a pain in the ass.
C&I: You’re well-known as a man who loves a good cigar. What’s your favorite brand?
Kid Rock: [Arturo] Fuente Short Stories — the Hemingways. That’s all I smoke. I’d appreciate it if you would be so kind as to tell people I very much appreciate the cigars they bring me all the time, but most of those go to my father. I only smoke the Short Stories. I appreciate the gesture very much, and I always accept them, but I do not smoke anything but the Fuente Short Stories.
C&I: Aside from cigars, what’s the most outrageous gift you’ve ever received from a fan?
Kid Rock: A Bourget chopper motorcycle. No kidding. This is probably a $30,000 bike. And it was Roger Bourget himself who actually gave it to me. See, we used to do a thing in our meet-and-greets where if somebody paid so much money, $1,000 or something, we’d put that in my charity [Kid Rock Foundation], and they’d get access to the meet-and-greet and two front-row tickets. I remember — this is years ago — Bourget came up, handed me a pamphlet, and said, “I won’t take too much of your time, but I’d love to build you a free motorcycle. Pick one out.” I was like, “Are you serious?” He said, “I’m dead serious.” So I just kind of flipped through the mag and said, “How about that one?” He goes, “Cool. I’ll call your people in about six months.” And six months later, lo and behold, here comes the motorcycle.
C&I: Sounds like being Kid Rock is a pretty sweet deal. And yet, you’ve gone on record saying you can see a time when you’ll kick back and retire.
Kid Rock: I’ve always been someone who says, “Don’t get into a battle you can’t win.” And the one battle nobody wins is the one with age. There’s no beating it as far as I can tell. As I’m getting older, some of the things I do onstage when I get into some of my heavier older songs, they take a toll. I don’t know if I want to be doing that at 55, 60 years old. I don’t know exactly how long I can keep it up. I try to stay in shape and make a lot better choices than I made when I was in my 20s and early 30s. But I would like to think that I can grow old gracefully in this music business. I’m going to try not to be somebody who doesn’t, because I’ve seen examples of that — and it’s very scary.
C&I: So what are your long-range plans?
Kid Rock: I’m a grandfather at 44 years old, which I’m very proud of. I kind of joke that when I’m up in that age group — 60, 65, wherever — I’m going to be sitting on my front porch in Michigan with a glass of Jim Beam, smoking a cigar in a rocking chair, and my granddaughter is going to come up to me and say, “Grandpa, what are you doing?” I’m going to say, “Still rocking.” I’ve got that one all planned out.
From the July 2015 issue.