Rowdy storms have knocked out power to Kid Rock's sprawling white farmhouse, whose front porch is guarded by a Civil War-era cannon.
So the goateed, self-referential, middle-finger-flashing rap-rocker starts lighting candles, revealing decor that would make Martha Stewart beam. Copper pots. Wainscoting. Monogrammed towels.
He sets the table while enthusing about each item in the barbecue buffet ("This pudding is just incredible"). Then, during dinner, "Bobby," as he introduces himself, holds forth on his love of antiquing ("It's about the hunt in an instant-gratification, one-click world").
Suddenly, the incongruity lands with a thud on Robert Ritchie, 39, who grew up on a nearby apple orchard in this suburb north of Detroit.
"Man, you could ruin my rep with just one article," he says. For a moment, his gaze is back-alley serious. But a grin splits his face, then a do-what-you-want chortle.
"Hey," Rock says, pausing to take a long pull off a short cigar, "when it comes to worrying about what people think of me, I don't give a ..."
Kid Rock is back in the house.
That devil-may-care attitude — confidence and f-bombs ooze forth over the next four hours — has provided much-needed armor as the musician has hopscotched between rap and Southern rock, not to mention courted tabloid attention with frat-boy mischief that's included mooning a foe during a dust-up at a Waffle House.
And it may be especially useful now, as Rock leaps with two cowboy boots into a very country sound on Born Free, out Tuesday. The makeover isn't needed: Rock has sold 25 million albums doing things his way. But he was eager to see what magic could be conjured with legendary producer Rick Rubin, who got Rock to forgo formerly unalienable rights: to record at his home studio, use his own band and curse.
No novelty songs
The result is a dozen straight-ahead songs recorded in Los Angeles with hit-making veterans and only mild epithets. The Bob Seger-influenced title track is an ode to the troops, while another Sheryl Crow duet, Collide, is as slow-dance ready as they come. Rock does let the kid in him out on the rollicking God Bless Saturday ("Cuz Monday's just a bitch/Tuesday's such a bother"), but mostly he stays in the country pocket on tunes such as Care, with Martina McBride and T.I., and the slow, harmony-heavy Flyin' High featuring Zac Brown.
"With this one, Bob could really break out" in a new direction, says Seger, who plays piano on Collide. "I'm happy for him. He's a devoted father (to Robert Jr., 17) who treats everyone well. He's not totally innocent, but the thoughtful side of him isn't an act, either."
And if Born Free "ain't Kid Rock enough for you, ah, blame Rick, heh heh," Rock says, digging into some short ribs from his favorite local eatery. "Seriously, I said I was going to give him the reins, and when I say something, I stick to it. Worst case, I wouldn't like it and I'd record another one."
But that's the defensive Rock talking, the guy who doesn't like getting backed into corners not of his making. The truth is, he's glad Rubin pushed him "to dig deeper and deeper and squeeze out some real songs, instead of squeezing (yourself), which was the mentality of the hip-hop world that I came from," he says. "So Rick challenged me. And I liked that."
Rock brought dozens of songs to the table, and "I was brutally honest about their strengths and weaknesses," Rubin says by e-mail. "He seemed to be in a place in his career where he was ready to do whatever it took to be great, and that's lots and lots of work."
As California neighbors in beachy Malibu, Rock and Rubin were friends long before they were collaborators. Rock introduced Rubin to another neighbor, surfer Laird Hamilton, who invited the now-trim Rubin to work out with him six days a week. Rubin in turn kept a close watch on Rock, whose talent he felt wasn't being fully exploited.
"There are so few rock stars in this day and age, and Bobby fits the bill in that respect, making American rock with deep roots," says Rubin. "He's been looked at as a novelty act because of some choices in the past. The hope is if he makes a serious, quality album, he'll be seen in that light."
"Novelty act" is code for Rock's All Summer Long,the smash mash-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama and Warren Zevon's Werewolves of Londonoff his triple-platinum, immodestly named Rock N Roll Jesus.
Critics crowed that anyone could score on the shoulders of giants.
"I'm not an idiot, I realize what it is," he says, sucking down a bottle of his Badass American Lager, which along with Made in Detroit clothing are Michigan-based enterprises the unabashed state booster oversees.
"But those kids who came to my rehearsal space today (a group of teens with life-threatening illnesses from the Rainbow Connection, a charity Rock supports), you know the first song they wanted to hear? All Summer Long. Made them smile? Yes, it did. So I'm happy."
The closest Rock came to his old ways on this album is a salute to growing up called F—-in'40. But it was rejected by Rubin. "I'll put it out anyway on an EP," Rock growls. "To me, it's not a novelty song, it's an anthem."
As a result of Rubin's firm hand, BornFree's songs are securely rooted in the country tradition. There are soulful pleas (Times Like These chronicles Michigan's fiscal blues) and bare confessions (For the First Time is Rock casting off his "drunken sailor" days).
The universality of these themes and the stars Rock enlisted to help put the songs over represent "a shrewd move in what is his first real bid for the mainstream," says Doug Brod, editor of Spin magazine.
"It's fitting Rock turned to Rubin, who recently helped Linkin Park smooth out its sound," says Brod, adding that Rubin also was a gateway to a backing band that included Chickenfoot/Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench.
While all that equals instant industry cred, it may not impress the country fans Rock hopes to woo with Born Free, says Ken Tucker, managing editor of Country Weekly magazine.
"He has been making inroads in ways that matter here, like being part of a tribute to Loretta Lynn and frequently performing at the Country Music (Association) Awards, but I think there's still some suspicion about credibility," says Tucker, noting that mainstream stars such as Jewel and Jessica Simpson "tried and failed to go country when their careers stalled.
"I do sense Kid Rock is genuine about his love of country music," he adds. "But he also is polarizing. He's brash and can be foul-mouthed where the country star is humble."
Fun, but no drama
Guilty as charged. But Rock is truly reverential of country's icons. He is close friends with the equally unconventional Hank Williams Jr., and a huge photo of Hank Sr. adorns Rock's studio wall. Rock also idolizes the Man in Black; an autographed shot of Johnny Cash— who wrote "Thanks for keeping the music going ... A fan, Johnny Cash" — also takes pride of place.
"The way I see it, this album is a natural progression for me, in terms of where I'm at age- and head-wise," says Rock, now sprawled on an oversized couch in a high-ceilinged living room adorned with everything from a photo of Run-D.M.C. to an antique rifle, not to mention a stuffed bison head.
Rock says his eclectic set list, from the old head-banging hit Bawitdaba to the singalong Purple Skyoff Born Free, is perfectly suited for "taking (concert-goers) on a musical journey, up and down emotionally, from stripped-down country ballads to rockers with stripper cages and fireworks."
Which one's the real Rock?
"Both, obviously, but I guess I'm starting to grow up," he says, acknowledging that many of Born Free's tracks mention religion. "Faith-wise, I do believe in God, but not in a Bible-thumping way. I think 40 is a time to realize maybe you can't do all the things you did at 20."
Not that he won't keep trying. Just the other day, Rock says, he had four young ladies over. They wound up shedding garments as Rock played his version of another Rubin-nixed track called Coochie Galore (inspired by the James Bond villainess Pussy Galore from Goldfinger).
Speaking of women, Rock won't discuss his marriage to Pamela Anderson, from whom he split in 2006: "I've said what I wanted to say." He's just as mum on current flames.
"But I can tell you that I've gotten a lot of the drama out of my life. The hangers-on, the bad people, " he says. "And I have no intention of letting that back in."
Rock is set up to keep bad vibes at bay. When he's not touring, he drives his Cadillac Escalade between this 35-acre spread and a large rehearsal space down the road.
"Go where you're celebrated, not tolerated," he says.
Here in the wilds of Michigan, Rock can unwind with friends by hunting — be it for boar or antiques — or zipping around his private go-kart track. And if things get a bit too tame, too domestic, there's always the gleaming stripper pole next to the bar in his home studio.
"I feel like I'm in a really great place in my life now," he says, sinking further into the couch cushions. "I'm not sure that makes for good songs. But at least I got Coochie Galore on the back burner, heh heh."