Kid Rock's cowboy persona has taken many forms over his 20-plus-year career. On his 1990 debut, Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast, he played a 19-year-old white kid from Detroit, a gunslinger in gold chains writing old-school rap songs like he was in Kool Moe Dee's wild wild west. He recalibrated that sound by 1998's breakthrough Devil Without a Cause, adding metal, rock, and a redneck aesthetic to the mix, striking gold with "Bawitdaba" and "Cowboy," which made him a Motor City megastar.
Kid Rock is still a chameleon today. At age 40, he has seven distinct albums under his belt, but none sound quite like 2010's Born Free. The aging rap-rocker is still searching, but now he's deep into the west, wearing boots and rhinestones, playing purer country and heartland rock. On Born Free, he set out to make a serious, country-tinged classic-rock album like another Detroit icon used to make — his idol, Bob Seger. He even drops the ridiculous white-trash rebel shtick long enough to take on serious subject matters about getting old ("Slow My Roll"), doing his part ("Care"), and blue-collar pride ("Times Like These").
The album's change of heart is summed up in its title track. "That's the tone of the record — just making it really fun and keeping people in good spirits," says Kid Rock, whose real name is Robert James Ritchie. "I never thought I would find a better closing number than 'Bawitdaba.' After the show you wanted to bounce a whiskey bottle off somebody's head. 'Born Free' is the big rainbow and the pot of gold. The guy gets the girl at the end of the movie."
Since 2001's Cocky, Rock has been showcasing his love for classic-rock moves. Today that retro sound is best known in the 2007 hit "All Summer Long," where he mashed Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." It's not a very original song (a lingering criticism with Rock), so he buckled down when it came to writing Born Free. He enlisted Rick Rubin, the big-bearded producer famous for, among other things, his Buddhist spiritualism, his seriousness in the studio, and for making classic albums with everyone from the Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash.
"It's a deeper record, and that's a lot of Rick's vision," says Rock. "I had a lot of these songs before we even said we were going to do the record together. Rick wouldn't even let me play those for the musicians. He's like, 'Sit down, play it with an acoustic guitar, and we're just going to hit record.' And I was like, 'Are you fucking kidding me?' He's like, "All those records you love — that's how they were made, and we're going to make a record like that.' I was like, 'All right. OK, Buddha.'"
Rubin and Rock recruited musicians like the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, and Chavez's Matt Sweeney to help. They even got Martina McBride, Zac Brown, and Sheryl Crow to sing with him, completing the Kid's transformation to pop-music cowboy.
Crow is also co-headlining the summer leg of Rock's Born Free tour. And it's a completely different Kid Rock onstage these days. Gone is the dick-grabbing American badass howling beers-in-the-air anthems about strippers, whiskey, and trailer parks. On Born Free's "Slow My Roll," he even sings, "Livin' life like a gypsy, lost and ashamed/So I'm a-look to the Lord as my witness, rest my hat on a shelf, trade these boots for forgiveness, and find myself."
Does this mean the Kid is packing away his renegade roots and retiring to the farm? Nope. "I want to lighten up on the next record and have some fun again," he says. "It took so many years to be accepted playing all these different genres of music. Now I think people kind of understand it. I don't see any reason why I shouldn't do the stuff that motivates me that day — whether it's a rock tune, a ballad, a straight-up country tune, or a rap song. I just want to take those elements and put them all together."
caption: "Bawitdaba, bitches!"