Sweet home Alabama for... Kid Rock
Deep in the Alabama countryside, superstar Kid Rock takes time away from his homes in Malibu, Michigan and Nashville to live the life of a hillbilly, and he loves it. Between boozy parties in his barn, which is equipped with a full bar, he hunts with Hank Williams Jr and he golfs at Tiger's house. Patrick Doyle joined him there to kill pigs and hear about the extraordinary life of this legendary wild man and womaniser, who hangs out with everyone from Sean Penn to Lionel Richie, and who has slept in Saddam Hussein's bed. Warning: animals were hurt in the making of this article
Ten miles outside town on a two-lane county road, just past the trailer park and across the street from Hank Williams Jr's place, there's a driveway with a poster that says: 'Re-Elect Sheriff Russell Thomas'. Beyond a gate, a dirt road winds around a small lake, past a 'Don't Feed the Hippies' sign, leading to a brown double-wide trailer.
Kid Rock stands outside puffing a cigar, his ponytail spilling out of an orange hunter's hat. "Welcome to LA," he says, meaning Lower Alabama. "I thought you were coming yesterday. We got our days screwed up. We cooked fuckin' chitlins [pig intestines]!"
It's noon on a sunny Thursday in Troy, seat of Pike County. Rock introduces his buddy Gabe, a portly local salesman who sold Rock a dog. They've been hunting on Rock's 500-acre property since 5.30am. He started emailing me at dawn, urging me to come early, promising "a badass surprise".
"I wanna tell you what it is so bad," he says. He steps into the trailer; a photo of Hank Jr hangs on the wall near two mounted deer heads. "I guarantee you ain't seen this before." As Gabe makes turkey sandwiches and Rock makes small talk, his girlfriend, Audrey, arrives in a pick-up truck, just back from Walmart. Rock spotted Audrey, a no-nonsense brunette, five years ago at a Michigan restaurant and asked her out on the spot. The next day, when she asked where they were eating, he said "Chicago". They had a blast, and have been going strong ever since.
Audrey spends much of her time here now; she loves to hunt, though she had to take a break a few months ago when she broke her leg in a night-time quad-bike crash.
Rock heads across the road to his huge barn, a man-cave decked out with a pool table, a full bar and a safe stocked with guns: a 22 rifle, two custom 45 pistols with ivory handles inside a case marked 'American Badass Set', and a semi-automatic with a silencer.
"Guys with the President carry this," he says. "You have to get these pre-1985 with a silencer. I bought it when Obummer came into office, because I'm thinking, 'What if he fuckin' bans guns?'"
Rock loads a few of them into one of his four-wheelers and we head into the woods, cruising his ragged dirt roads. He's installed several cameras in trees to keep track of wildlife from his barn: deer, coyotes, bobcats - and lately, feral hogs, which have been damaging his property.
He points out a torn-up stretch of grass. "A nice green field - they fucked it all up," he says. Then we reach the clearing with Rock's bad-ass surprise: a small cage trap containing three fat, wide-eyed hogs. They wandered into it this morning, lured by the corn inside. "See that?" he asks with a grin. "We're about to do some murderous shit."
Rock, whose real name is Bob Ritchie (most friends call him Bobby), fell in love with Pike County on hunting trips with Hank Williams Jr, a local hero thanks to his rowdy anthems and unabashed conservative politics; his father, country pioneer Hank Williams Sr, is buried about 35 miles away, in Montgomery.
Two years ago, when Hank Jr mentioned that a neighbour's neglected property was for sale, Rock agreed to buy it sight unseen.
"Great people, man - just small-town America," Rock says. "If World War III breaks out, you know where I'll be."
There's a nearby landing strip for his private jet, so he can easily travel to his houses in Michigan, Malibu, Nashville (where he also lives out of a double-wide mobile home) and Florida. "No security," he says of the strip. "Just drive a pick-up truck on to the tarmac, leave your keys in the car, get on the plane."
Hank Jr taught Rock the lay of the land. "The snakes around here are bad news, and this area really has a lot of them," says Williams, who is 65. "You gotta know what the hell you're doing down here. You don't put your hand under a boat. We're not having pizza over on Long Island."
Rock has spent some of his favourite nights at Williams's place with singer Jamey Johnson, who owns property on a nearby golf course. "I ain't never met a stranger down here - and nobody's stranger than me and Bobby," Johnson jokes.
Recently, the pair's friendship was tested when Johnson asked to use Rock's land to hunt with his daughter, and then overstayed his welcome.
"He brought in a bunch of fuckin' hillbillies," Rock says. "They were living by the creek - tents set up, riding around trying to kill shit. I got really pissed. I'm like, 'Jamey, have you ever heard of insurance?' I had to tell them to get the fuck off my property."
(Johnson agrees: "I moved into his woods out there for a while. It was what started off to be maybe five or six people, but it turned into about 20 or 30. I agreed with Bobby. It was just time.")
"They're gonna start charging," Rock warns as we approach the hogs. "If for some reason they get out, jump up in back of [the truck]. They'll cut your ass."
Because hogs are a non-native species with high reproductive rates, hunters are encouraged to kill them year-round. Rock has been trying to catch some for three months. Two light-coloured sows and a small boar huddle together in the back of the cage. As we get closer, they get jittery, walking in circles around one another, grunting and crashing.
"Let me knock this one out with my nine-mil first," Rock says, reaching into his holster. He points the pistol between one of the sow's eyes. "Bye," he says, firing. It collapses and writhes on the ground, running in place on its side for several seconds, its hooves rattling the cage. "His ass is done."
The other pigs go silent. One rubs its snout on the dead sow. Rock hands a rifle to Audrey, showing her where to aim at the blond boar. "Ah, they stink," she says, sticking the gun into the cage and firing. "Poor thing. Sorry, buddy."
Rock shoots the third. It falls, stays still, then lurches back up, blood spilling from behind its ear. He shoots again. "Two to the head with a 45 and it's still kicking," he says. "That's unbelievable."
Everyone surveys the damage. Rock takes a photo and he sends it to Hank Jr. Some locals will come by later to purchase the hogs.
"The blond one is pretty," says Audrey.
"Pretty dead," Rock says with a chuckle. "Well, there's some excitement to get the day started!"
Rock's Alabama getaway inspired much of his new album, First Kiss. He wrote songs like Drinking Beer with Dad, a winding, melancholy track about watching his son grow up, on his Troy porch over a cigar and coffee. Rock (44) sings about cruising Southern back roads and sipping Jim Beam at juke joints on Good Time Lookin' for Me, and he salutes gun-loving, denim-wearing women on Johnny Cash.
Jesus and Bocephus is a spare, fiddle-steeped hymn that pays tribute to the Bible and getting stoned listening to Hank Jr. "There are a few on this record I think are really special," Rock says.
One day during a recording session in Michigan, Rock and his band were arguing about who played slide guitar on Like a Rock - so Rock texted his friend Bob Seger to ask the man himself. Seger ended up coming over, and Rock played him a singalong he called FOAD aka "Fuck Off And Die".
Seger loved the melody but hated the lyrics. "He's like, 'Dude, you fucking ruined that song - that's a hit!'"
Seger rewrote it as Say Goodbye, a ballad about the fear that a break-up could be the mistake of a lifetime. "He called me the next morning and said, 'Hey, what do all women want in life?' I'm being a smartass, I'm like, 'A big dick and a new car.' He said, 'No! They want to be remembered forever! And I'm going to give it to you because you've been so nice to me'."
Rock couldn't decide which version he liked better, so he ended up putting both on the album.
Rock will take the songs on the road to amphitheatres in the US this summer: "I'm the Jimmy Buffett with hair who swears."
He'll help fans save their beer money by holding prices down to $20 a ticket, like he did last time out. "I'm going to ride that into the sunset," says Rock. "The only obstacle is Ticketmaster adds an extra $5. Fuckin' whores."
At this point, Rock knows who his audience is: "Forty-five to 50-year-old girls wearing extra-large T-shirts - they're my bread and butter. They know how to fucking party - 'I don't give a fuck, I'm making a T-shirt and putting sequins on it. I'm saving my money for beer and having a good time'."
Rock sometimes seems like a right-wing politician catering to his base. He won't play Europe or mainstream US festivals, but he will play SeaWorld. His fans love it when he shouts things such as "Fuck Radiohead" onstage or attacks mainstream pop. He's "flabbergasted" by Beyonce worship.
"Beyonce, to me, doesn't have a fucking Purple Rain, but she's the biggest thing on Earth. How can you be that big without at least one Sweet Home Alabama or Old Time Rock & Roll? People are like, 'Beyonce's hot. Got a nice fucking ass'. I'm like, 'Cool, I like skinny white chicks with big tits'. Doesn't really fucking do much for me."
Rock could have had a country career after his 2001 hit with Sheryl Crow, Picture - he is routinely asked to co-write with Nashville's top songwriters - but he's not interested. "In country, those award shows make your career . . . and I don't suck dick," he says. "I'll tickle your balls a little bit. But I ain't gonna suck your dick."
Still, Rock wants another big song, something he hasn't had since 2010's heartland anthem Born Free. He writes off his last album, 2012's Rebel Soul: "It fucking flopped. Before that, I had never not been platinum. I should just go smack somebody at the Waffle House [a fast-food chain]. That worked out great."
Days after 2007's Rock n Roll Jesus came out, Rock and some of his entourage were arrested for getting into a brawl with a customer. "The judge said, 'What were you doing at the Waffle House at five in the morning?' and I'm like, 'We're drinking. Who goes to Waffle House sober?'"
"Watching the news, it was like, 'Kid Rock - his album just came in at number one - was in a fight last night'. It was like, 'I should just go smack somebody when my record comes out! I think I should get caught in Malibu firing my cannon on the fourth of July. They'd raise a stink in California and send me to jail and shit. How could that not be cool?"
Rock has always known how to get attention. He remembers riding around Detroit in the 90s in a Cadillac painted with gold flames, alongside Joe C, his three-foot-nine hype man, along with "my black girlfriend at the time, who had a body like Jessica Rabbit".
"There's probably photos of it somewhere," he adds. "The caption should've been, 'Somebody look at me! Over here!'"
Before he became a star, Rock would decorate his stage with stolen liquor-store signs and burst out of a pyramid made of peg boards and construction paper. "People were like, 'What the fuck's the matter with this kid? He thinks he's in a stadium!'"
Rock's dad, who owned a Lincoln-Mercury [car] dealership, didn't approve; he wanted his son to take over the family business. "He would ask, 'Why would you want to be a nigger?'" says Rock. "But I've seen him change, and he couldn't be more proud. Now he's crying after shows."
Rock's rapping and flashy turntable skills earned him a deal with Jive Records, but his 1990 debut album, the straight-hip-hop Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast, tanked. He added rock riffs to 1994's The Polyfuze Method (he calls it a "drug record"). He started growing his hair out; on the strength of independent sales and packed shows, he was signed to Atlantic in 1998.
By then, Rock was a single father - his girlfriend, Kelley Russell, gave birth to their son, Robert Ritchie Jr, whom Rock calls Junior, when Rock was 22. "He was pretty much dropped off at my door at six months old: 'You raise this fucking kid'," says Rock. "I was like, 'This has gotta work'. So what's popular? Korn. I knew I can do that shit in my sleep. But let me throw in Only God Knows Why and Cowboy so I can have a career."
Hearing that Carson Daly was a fan, Rock showed up at the MTV Beach House in Jersey on the remote chance he could get on TV. After Sugar Ray bailed one day, Rock got on camera as a DJ. "We were working for it, just kind of showing up and hanging out," he says. "We were sucking big cocks."
While radio stations were reluctant to play Rock, MTV did. The video for Bawitdaba - with Rock screaming his name over a Gregorian-style chant and rapping in a trailer park while sidekick Joe C plays football with schoolkids - became an immediate hit in 1999.
Rock remembers picking up the five-year-old Junior from school every day and turning on Total Request Live, where Rock was getting played alongside Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. "We'd see the video and be like, 'We're getting a new fucking house! We're getting a new car!'"
Devil Without a Cause, from 1998, went on to sell nearly 10 million copies; the next year, he was performing Bawitdaba at MTV's Spring Break as models paraded around him.
Rock contends he could have made a lot more money during his pop peak. At the time, he was going through a custody battle with Russell (which he settled in 2000; Rock says he charged her $25 a week in child support), and only toured on weekends. "I'd be driving the field trip Monday after I banged, like, four hookers," he says. "Well, not hookers, but, you know, four nice girls on Saturday night in Cincinnati.
"He knew I was wild," Rock says of his son. "I didn't hide any of that. But it was kind of our dirty little secret together. He saw girls come in and out, which probably wasn't the healthiest thing. I tried not to do it too much, but fuck, I had a dick and I was famous at that time, you know? I can only talk about this now, since he's 21. I wish I could've talked about it, said, 'Hey, I was wild. But I showed up to work on Monday to be a father'."
Junior is now in his final year at Belmont University in Nashville and is pursuing a music career himself. A couple of weeks from now, Junior will become a father.
"He really is a great kid," says Rock. "That's my best accomplishment by far. I'm nervous for him, because I know it's a lot of work. But he's got a good girl. I'm excited for him, but he's gotta give up a lot of shit to have to take care of that baby. I said, 'You know how your friends are telling you I'm fucking rich? I fucking am. You're not. And if I wrote you a cheque, it'd be doing a disservice to you. I'm rooting for you, but I need to stand by the sidelines and watch it go down'."
There are some days when Bob Ritchie doesn't feel like being Kid Rock. "If I'm not in the mood to have a good time, then I'm not around people," he says. "I've learned to go, 'Bob, are we in a bad mood today? Maybe we shouldn't go to Walmart'."
Hank Jr says he's been with Rock for dark moments: "Me and Bob have been really quite broken-hearted together, sitting there bawling and I'm trying to help him."
But the Rock most people see has few social inhibitions. He's friends with cops and imprisoned gang members, Mitt Romney - "He's the most decent motherfucker I've ever met in my life" - and Eminem.
Cruising the well-maintained roads on Hank Jr's 1,500-acre property, he's full of stories: his debaucherous three days with Axl Rose a few years ago - "I was like, 'Why's everyone think this guy's a dick? He's the nicest guy on Earth!'" - or the time Eminem and Seger recently hung out together at Rock's Detroit place. "Em's just sitting in the corner - me, Em and Bob - and they're trying to relate, but they're both a little kooky . . . Eminem's funny as shit, man. He's a great father, he's funny, he's talented out his ass, but you know, obviously, my social skills are much more developed."
At his Malibu house (which he bought during his relationship with Pamela Anderson), he holds dinners with unlikely combinations of friends: Sean Penn and Mike Diamond, Josh Groban, and, recently, Lionel Richie. "He said, 'I just got knighted in France'," says Rock. "And I went, 'Lionel, do you know how to play the bigger-dick game?' He goes, 'Hell, yeah'. I run to my bedroom, I bring out my NAACP Award [National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People] and go, 'Boom'. He goes, 'You just beat me at the fucking bigger-dick game!'
"By the end of the night, me and Lionel were going to start a restaurant in California called Dem Ritchie Boys."
Lately, Rock has been getting into golf. He was just accepted into Jack Nicklaus's private Bear's Club, near Palm Beach, Florida. "If you told me five years ago I'd have to take my hat off and tuck my shirt in, I'd have slapped the taste out of your mouth," Rock says. "Now I'm like, 'Look at me, hair slicked back, shirt tucked in'. I'm like, 'What a fag!'"
Rock recently got some pointers at the range from Nicklaus himself, and he hit balls at Tiger Woods's nearby house. "Nice kid," Rock says. "A little bit of an Eminem and Axl Rose syndrome. Very reclusive, literal, and sometimes you feel a little bad for them. Sometimes they think the world's against them. You gotta loosen up, man! People are gonna talk shit. You just gotta enjoy it!"
Tonight, Rock won't be hosting any famous friends. "We got a bunch of hillbillies coming by," he says, gathering twigs in the woods for a bonfire he's having trouble starting. "This should be hotter than a fuckin' two-dollar-whore's ass."
"Whoa, whoa," says Audrey, cracking a beer.
"Sorry - three-dollar."
Rock ducks inside his barn to respond to an email approving a local Detroit ad for his American Badass Beer Co. "Cool," he writes. "There's my work for the day," he says.
Local folks filter into Rock's big pinewood barn, which is outfitted with leather couches, a giant taxidermy bear (a gift from sandwich-shop mogul Jimmy John), a tiger rug and a chandelier made of antlers. There's Forrest, who works at a local hunting store; Donna, who is Hank Jr's housekeeper; and Greg, who worked at the phone company for 18 years. "People forget about places like this in America," Rock says. He recently brought three local friends on their first trip to New York to act as his security at The Tonight Show.
"To me, it just looked cool, walking in with these Alabama boys with black shirts," he says. "I'm like, 'I look like the baddest motherfucker'." His friend Kent says, "You don't know how much that trip meant to me."
As a host, Rock is easy-going but watchful, asking guests to lose their shoes when they come inside. He notices when I put my jacket on a stool, asking me to put it on a coat rack instead, "to set a good example". Audrey cranks Miranda Lambert's Platinum and serves a venison pasta dinner. Rock teaches a friend's son how to play pool, and holds foot races with two little girls. He cues up video of the hog execution on his Apple TV. Watching the second hog get shot and rattle the cage, one guy says: "It sounds like they're playing the drums for you, Bob! They wanted you to sing to 'em!"
Smoking a cigar in his garage next to a 'Ted Nugent for President' bumper sticker, Rock glances at his phone.
"Sarah Palin just sent me a text," Rock says. Palin had heard that Rock surprised a superfan, who has Down syndrome, at his 30th-birthday party. "She was like, 'That was cool'. I'm like, 'If you were me, you would've done the same thing'."
Back in the barn, Rock starts playing pool and shows one of his buddies a game he learned as a teenage hustler. He drops a $20 on the floor, asking his friend to call heads or tails. He loses; now he owes Rock $20. "Don't ever play that game again," Rock yells. "It's so sadistic. That game will fuck your life up. You see that? I can sit there all night with money in my pocket - one more time! I can win every time, because I have fuck-off money. The house always wins."
It's after 2am. Most guests have filtered out (one woman is passed out on the couch), but Rock, who's been up for nearly 24 hours, seems to get more energy as the night wears on. He makes a drink at the bar, stocked with American Badass Beer and Jim Beam, and sits down on a barstool by Greg, a husky guy in a camouflage visor. Rock asks him what he thinks of unions. "It's good for the workin' man," Greg drawls after some hesitation.
"But people take advantage of it, right?" Rock asks. "You're one of the guys, I can see, you worked your ass off for it. You go into work every day and work your ass off and see the motherfuckers who take advantage of it."
Rock starts talking about the seven trips he's made to the Middle East to entertain troops. "I spent two Christmases there . . . slept in Saddam's bedroom," he says.
Those trips affirmed Rock's political beliefs. He's pro-torture in some situations, and he sees gun ownership as a sacred right. "Getting rid of them is not the answer," he says. Adds Greg: "If all the guns were taken from American citizens, the only ones who would have guns would be the damn outlaws."
"The guy who got Osama bin Laden was on Fox News," Rock says. "His daddy raised him in Montana, hunting, fishing. He got it from hunting. What that kid knows is fucking invaluable. Shooting 200 yards is hard. To be able to make 1,000-yard shots? I'm glad we have some people like that on our side."
"Would you go fight for this country if they called you?" he asks.
"Yeah," Greg says.
"I would too. That's what most people don't understand. And I would send my son. You gotta go."
Greg tells a story about a friend who served three tours overseas. He went back again two years ago, shortly after recovering from a serious injury. Greg hasn't heard from him since: "I won't tell you how many times I tried to get in touch with him. A lot of times I can't sleep at night. I go watch the sun come up. He should be 41 now. He had no damn business going back."
"While we are sitting around drinking beer and whiskey, those guys fucking gave their lives," says Rock. "Then you go to Walter Reed hospital and you see these kids and their mothers . . ." It's quiet for a long time, until he starts choking up. A couple of tears run down his face. For the first time all day, he's silent.
Greg looks at his watch. It's past 4.30am. "It's about that time, isn't it?" he says. Rock nods and heads to bed.
Audrey's brother, who's in the military, is coming tomorrow for his weekend off. Rock needs to get some rest to do it all over again.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine