As a singer and songwriter, John Rich is a unique talent. But as a rogue, huckster and progressive, he is extraordinary. It was Rich who helped create the Muzik Mafia, a loose collective of musical outcasts deemed too rock, too rough or just too weird by the famously conservative executives on Nashville's Music Row. It was Rich, along with partner Big Kenny Alphin, who came up with the Mafia acronym (Musically Artistic Friends in Alliance) and slogan ("Music without prejudice") and showed the group members how to turn their individuality into hits, co-writing Gretchen Wilson's underclass anthem Redneck Woman and the winningly lewd Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy) for his own duo, Big & Rich. Now Rich is putting his skills behind an act that tweaks Nashville's two greatest taboos--race and musical tradition--and he can barely contain himself. "Cowboy Troy is the only 6-ft. 5-in. black rapping cowboy I've ever met!" says Rich. "We think he's going to be a groundbreaking, multiplatinum artist!"
Cowboy Troy is indeed black (he prefers the term to African American), and, particularly with his ten-gallon hat on, he is enormous. He is also a phlegmatic and thoughtful antidote to Rich's hype. "I get looks from just about everybody," says Troy Coleman, 34, as he squeezes into a booth at a Nashville steak house. "I'm pretty used to the fact that there aren't a lot of people who look and dress like me." There aren't a lot of people like him, period. Coleman grew up in Dallas and Forth Worth, Texas, loving Guns N' Roses, Charlie Daniels and Run D.M.C. He majored in psychology at the University of Texas, speaks six languages (including Russian and Mandarin), is a few hours short of a master's degree in economics and spent nine years as a human-resources consultant. "I think of myself as a pretty unique dude," says Coleman. "But if you've been to a country bar recently and seen people dance to a George Strait song followed by a Ludacris song, you know I'm hardly the only person that likes rap and country mixed together."
Cowboy Troy's debut album, Loco Motive, was just released on the Muzik Mafia's Warner Bros. imprint, Raybaw (red and yellow, black and white) Records. Says Troy: "I'm rapping over pedal-steel guitar, lap steel, Dobro, fiddle and other country instruments. In the Muzik Mafia we call it hick-hop, and we think its time has come. Country is ready to expand its boundaries." There are signs he may be right. Nelly and Tim McGraw recently had a hit with the style-mixing duet Over and Over, Jack White of the White Stripes produced a Grammy-winning album for Loretta Lynn, and the best song currently making its way around the Internet is Sweet Home Country Grammar, a mash-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama and Nelly's Country Grammar.