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John Rich Talks ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ Finale

Warner Music Nashville

John Rich has worked extremely hard to make it to the final two on NBC’s ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’ The winner will be revealed live this Sunday (May 22), with the entire cast returning for the finale. The country singer-songwriter-producer has raised more than $750,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital on the show, and if he wins on Sunday, he will score $1 million for his chosen charity and be the first country artist to win ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’

John has followed in the footsteps of Trace Adkins, who appeared on the first season of the show, making it all the way to No. 2, only to lose to TV host Piers Morgan, who has on occasion been condescending toward country artists. Clint Black appeared on the second season of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ in 2009, making it to the top five.

In the midst of prepping for the final episode of ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ John released two six-pak albums this week. The first, ‘Rich Rocks,’ includes his previous single, ‘Country Done Come to Town,’ as well as ‘You Had Me From Hell No,’ featuring his ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ co-star Lil Jon. Hank Williams Jr., Kid Rock and Cowboy Troy are also featured on the project. John also released the six-song set, ‘For the Kids,’ with a portion of the proceeds going to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He and his Big & Rich partner, Big Kenny, have also recorded the song ‘Fake I.D.’ for the ‘Footloose‘ film soundtrack. In addition, the duo are planning a full-length album.

John sat down with The Boot earlier this week to chat about ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ his opponent going into the finale, his teammates, negotiating with Def Leppard‘s road manager at the end of last week’s show, and most importantly, the awareness his turn on the show has given his charity. Oh, we also had to ask John about Star Jones‘ crush on him.

Last Sunday was pretty tense in the boardroom when your friends Lil Jon and then Meat Loaf were fired, leaving you pitted against Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who you’ve gone head-to-head twice already. What was going through your mind when you realized you were going to compete for the title of ‘Celebrity Apprentice?’

I was thinking two things. One: I can’t believe I was able to successfully navigate to this point. One wrong move, one wrong color on a poster or a wrong idea, you get tagged with it and you’re fired. There’s a million ways to get fired on that show. I was in shock, and then the second thing was and really the most dominant thought was — once I got over the shock — was, “Holy cow! I’ve got a shot at winning this thing for St. Jude and getting another $250,000.” You’re talking about a quarter of a million bucks, if you win. When I decided to do the show, I had a personal goal of raising a million dollars. Well, so far on the show, I have raised just a little more $750,000 for St. Jude. So, if I win, as irony would have it, it would put me over a million dollars. There’s some kind of poetic justice for that. It gives me a good feeling to know that. It was a gut feeling I had that I could raise a million, but come to find out, I’m going to need to win the show to do it.

It seems as though everyone is predicting that you will win the show. People in the country music community know what a good businessman you are, in addition to your songwriting, performing and producing talents. As you mentioned in last Sunday’s show, you use both sides of your brain, and you’re doing it with a lot of class.

That’s very nice to hear. Throughout my career, you’re talking about all the way back to the Lonestar days when I was 18 years old. I have not always made the right decision and always had class with what I did. I’m a kid from a double-wide trailer in Amarillo, Texas, who’s played honky-tonks all of his life. I’m a rebel-rousing honky-tonk singer. It is definitely a side of me that has gotten more bad attention than good sometimes, and ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ has gone a long way to allow me to prove to the world I’m not some lunatic running out here on the loose. I can get something done and do something good. I actually thanked Donald Trump for asking me to be on this show, because it’s a unique opportunity to take everything I’ve built for myself — because that’s what you’re looking at in your career: How many records have I sold? How many hits can I get? How many tickets can I sell? How big and popular can my career get? It’s great, and you have to be like that to have a big successful career, and to be able to take all that that you’ve built — this mountain of stuff — and leverage it on behalf of something like the kids at St. Jude, it’s an awesome opportunity.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital will not only benefit financially from your ‘Apprentice’ run, but the awareness of the hospital will also grow exponentially.

There’s a lot of people on Twitter now, I got three or four random people who don’t listen to country music that said, “I’d never heard of you. I’ve never heard of St. Jude, but I have been watching you on the show and now I’m a Partner in Hope.” A Partner in Hope is where people give $20 a month or $50 or $100, whatever they can give. So, there are people going online and joining St. Jude Partners in Hope that aren’t even country fans, just because this show has allowed me to put such a spotlight and emphasis on St. Jude. I’m hoping that that’s happening by the thousands of people around the United States.

This finale, there’s a song I wrote called ‘For the Kids.’ It’s up on iTunes. (Download it here.) It’s $1.29, and we’ve been able to work out a deal with iTunes where 100 percent of the $1.29 goes to St. Jude. I’m going to perform the song live on Sunday, and Marlee Matlin is going to sit next to me signing the lyrics as I’m singing it. It’s going to be the most powerful moment — you can say what you want about ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ and the drama and all that. You’re talking about straight charity. This will be the most powerful thing that’s happened. Having that song up and available, there could be 20 million people watching this show on Sunday. It could really round up a ton of money.

You mentioned you had people on both sides of the fence saying “do it” and “don’t do it.” Marlee said on this past Sunday’s show it was the hardest thing she has ever done, and Trace has told us it was “an exercise in restraint,” the likes of which he had never experienced. What has this experience been like for you?

It is an exercise in restraint, because in your regular life, as an artist, you pretty much have autonomy. You can decide what you want to do. Trace Adkins can say, “I want my band to wear these clothes. I want to play these songs. I want to go tour these dates. I want to record these songs.” He can decide what he wants to do, and you live and die by his decisions. On ‘Apprentice,’ you’re in front of 12 million people a week and you have maniacs — some of these people — around you that are pushing your buttons and causing situations to happen that at the end of the day could get me fired. If we lose a task and they sit there and try to pin something on me and now I’m out of the game and I don’t get to raise any more money for St. Jude, well, those are fighting words. The balance is how do you fight and compete at a really high level without disrespecting anybody or losing your cool. That is the tough part. In real life, you don’t have to worry about that. You can lose your cool if you want to. You can say, “I don’t like the way you did that, you don’t play for me anymore. I’m not working with you anymore.” That’s not the case with ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ because you’re there for your charity. You’re not there for yourself. I found that I was at my best playing on behalf of something that was bigger than me.

What’s the biggest surprise you discovered throughout the show?

I’m a team player at heart. I’ve been in a band. I’m in a duo. I like being on stage playing with other people and making music with other people. I like the team thing. When I see people sabotaging things on purpose … doing things that might cause harm to my cause, that was the big kicker for me. How to put circuit breakers between my brain and my mouth where I wouldn’t haul off and say something to somebody that they would edit into such a thing that would look like I was out of control or something — that was the real kicker. So, in that sense I had an advantage that Trace didn’t have, because I had Trace to ask questions to and say, “How did you handle that?” He gave me great advice. It’s a mega-challenge.

Going into Sunday night’s show, you’re going up against a pretty fierce competitor in Marlee Matlin. What do you think are her strengths?

She has four kids. I think the hardest job in the world is to be a great mom, so there’s number one right there. She’s got a wicked sense of humor. When you’re around her, she’s always cracking jokes. She’ll tell you a dirty joke in two seconds. She’s really got a great personality. She’s pretty dadgum fearless. I mean, she did ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ and she’s deaf. This is a fearless individual, and she’s playing for a charity that has a situation that she has. It’d be like me playing for a cancer hospital if I had cancer, so it’s that personal to her. On that level, it makes her a fierce competitor. She’s raised a million bucks. In this finale, it’s not going to be me picking at her and telling Donald Trump, “Well, Marlee did this, that and the other thing, and I did this, that and the other thing.” It’s not going to be about that. You go in there, you make your case to Trump, and as a body of work, I think I’ve beat her across the board from task one to the final task. She’s raised a million, and I’ve raised over $750,000. When you start getting up into numbers like that, it’s not like somebody was weak and somebody was strong. We both smoked it on the fundraising. It’s going to come down to what Trump wants, honestly. There’s not much more I can do to affect the outcome. He picks the winner live, and the whole cast is going to be there. No doubt he’s going to ask the cast who he should hire, and it’s going to be dynamic for sure. There’s going to be the performance of ‘For the Kids.’ It’s going to be a roller-coaster night.

The end of the last episode was beginning to get a bit stressful for fans watching at home, where you were filmed on the phone with Def Leppard’s road manager. What happened exactly?

Their tour manager was throwing me the generic, rock-star-tour-manager lines, throwing up these walls and having the attitude of “Hey! We’re Def Leppard.” I know you’re Def Leppard and that’s awesome, and I’m me and they’re them and if we’re all here for charity. He wasn’t making it easy, and it was really starting to rub me the wrong way. I was overloaded. I had too much going on at once to have this guy on the phone giving me grief about a soundcheck. At the end of the day, it all works out, and 7Up has the final call anyway. They’re not going to say Def Leppard played a good show or a bad show. It’s going to come down to that can. It’s going to come down to that commercial. The Def Leppard element, it’s an incredibly great band, and I was honored to work with them. It was just a little difficult on the front end, but you’ll see, we work through it and get on the same page.

That’s good, because the way they edited the previews for next week — where you go to introduce them, and the shot cuts to an empty drum riser — was pretty dramatic.

That’s a major hiccup that happened, and it’s my fault a hundred percent. I take ownership of it, but it’s fine. It’s not a deal breaker, but we’ll see what Trump thinks.

What about Star Jones, who comes back to help you with the final task? She got all flirtatious and said she would date you if you were not married.

How about that? [laughs] The thing with Star Jones is I’d rather have her liking on me than hating me, because we know how she is when she doesn’t like somebody. For me, that was part of being project manager. I picked Star. That was no accident. I wanted her [on my team]. She is ruthless. She is calculating, and if used in the right way is invaluable. She is a litigator, so she knows how to go at something. The first thing I did was put my arm around her and said, “I am so happy to have you on this team. You are one of the smartest people ever to be on this show. I need you to give me everything you got because we’ve got to beat Marlee Matlin.” She looked up at me and said, “You’ve got it! Anything you need, you let me know. I’m on it.” That’s part of being a manager, empowering your people and letting people know you feel like they’re important and valuable, and it’s a team.

And you believe in them. You know their strengths and you let them do their job, so you can do yours.

Correct. But you also have to be able to reel them in if they get too far out. This last episode, I watched Meat Loaf steamroll Marlee again. He steamrolled her once, and they lost, and he steamrolled her again. She has not reeled him in, and I have to think that has to play into the decision at some point.

You’ve developed some good friendships with some of the folks on the show, such as Meat Loaf, Lil Jon and Mark McGrath, even recording a song ‘Standing in the Storm,’ which is available on iTunes and will benefit all four of your charities. These are friendships that will probably last a lifetime.

I would say so, without a doubt. McGrath, Meat Loaf, and on [Sunday] night, I had Gary Busey at my house smoking a cigar watching the episode. I’m friends with him, and we even cracked heads really hard.

Lil Jon, your teammate on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ revealed on the ‘Ellen DeGeneres Show‘ last week the two of you had an alliance.

We kept it quiet, because we didn’t want the show’s producers busting us up. We didn’t want anybody moaning or griping about it. We were friends, and actually strong acquaintances would be the better term to use, because we don’t live in the same town. It’s not like we talked every day or saw each other all the time, but we definitely had an immediate bond and connection the first time we met. I think we met backstage at an awards show somewhere. He loved the Big & Rich music. I loved the stuff he was doing. He was outrageous. I’m a little bit outrageous, or maybe a lot outrageous, and we connected. We’re both serious guys on the business side, and I think that’s why we connected. We definitely watched each other’s tail.

When Lil Jon was fired last Sunday, you said he broke down the stereotype of hip-hop stars and rappers, but I think you have also done the same thing for country music.

I did feel that responsibility, by the way. It was always on my mind. If you’ll notice, I was never walking around in a ball cap and a T-shirt. I was always in a suit coat and a cowboy hat, dressed, every time. I don’t care if I was on the street selling a pizza, I had on a cowboy hat and I looked presentable, because I knew that stereotype was out there, and it’s an incorrect stereotype. We are serious people, and as a matter of fact, I think country people are the backbone of this nation. For anybody to ever speak down, well, you saw Jose Conseco and Richard Hatch talk about how country people were backward and all this stuff. That was one of those moments where I had to exercise restraint. I still called them out. I said, “If you want to get out of this van and square off with me, I’m ready. Say that one more time, Jose.” He’s a big old cuss, too! I would have climbed him like a telephone pole, and I was ready to do it because it really hit me the wrong way. I shut them down quick. I was not a pushover on this show at all, but at the same time, I felt because of my responses like that, it did get some respect out of the other cast mates. Once they saw me go there a couple of times, people really didn’t cross me that much any more … “I didn’t make fun of you for not paying your taxes. I didn’t make fun of you for taking steroids all those years. Where do you get off picking on country people?” Give me a break. [laughs]

The Celebrity Apprentice’ finale airs Sunday May 22 at 9:00 (ET) on NBC.

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