Rascal Flatts: Men of Valor (2014)
Maybe it’s a symptom of being in a hugely popular country band, but there is a point when the songs you hear start to sound a little too much like what you’ve already done. You can choose to stay the course, or you can shake things up to get a new variation on the old formula and ensure your continued relevance.
“Rewind,” the new single from country-pop kings Rascal Flatts, is one of those new twists and finds the group expanding its sonic universe even as it holds firm to the past. The quiet intro of spacey guitar effects and ticking drum loop sounds very current, but the utterly sincere lyrics about replaying one perfect day and the huge, harmonized chorus—that’s vintage Flatts.
Looking back while looking ahead: that’s a pretty good indication of what the trio of Gary LeVox, 43, Jay DeMarcus, 42, and Joe Don Rooney, 38, is attempting with their new album, also titled Rewind, due out May 13. “We have some of the strongest songs we’ve had in recent memory on this record,” says Jay, seated between his bandmates at their manager’s Music Row offices. “Some of these people who feel like we took a departure with the Dann Huff records [Me and My Gang, Unstoppable, etc.] are gonna rediscover what they first fell in love with [about] Rascal Flatts on this record.”
“We worked with Dann for a lot of years,” says Joe Don, who recently announced he and wife Tiffany Fallon are expecting a third child. “Dann’s got that really good pop-rock thing, and there’s nobody better.”
It’s not really that it was such a departure, so much as the absence of one, that they felt needed to be addressed. “It’s tough, once you’ve done as many albums as we have,” offers Gary. After Rascal Flatts found success, Nashville songwriters began pitching them songs that were eerily similar to their previous hits. “We might have stayed a little too long in the same place without growing,” he concludes.
Fifteen years ago, it probably seemed like a long shot for Rascal Flatts to become the biggest band in country and a huge influence on the sound of country radio today. The group’s self-titled debut album and first single “Prayin’ for Daylight” arrived during a particularly traditional period in country, when Alan Jackson, George Strait and company couldn’t miss. “It was scary for me, because I knew that we were throwing something totally different at the world at that time,” acknowledges Jay. “Even Brad [Paisley] had preceded us by a couple years, back then, I think.”
“Close, yeah,” agrees Gary.
Jay continues. “We were doing something that was either going to hit it big or we were going to fail miserably,” he says. “Because when we first came out people started deriding us as a ‘boy band of country music.’ That was one of the very first knocks on us.”
Following the global success of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC in the late ’90s, drawing those parallels was probably pretty easy if you were just going on appearances. “But we’re the ones that missed it,” insists Gary. “It never even crossed our minds because we were like, ‘Man, we play!’ Then it was like, ‘Oh. Oh yeah, I guess it does kind of look like it.’”
Jay laughs. “We got a lot of criticism early on with the first couple singles, even though they were successful from a chart standpoint,” he says. “But I tell you what saved us: When people heard ‘I’m Movin’ On’ and heard our song sensibilities and that we were capable of picking a song like that, I think people’s perception and opinion of us started to shift a little bit. [People stopped] writing us off as a cute little boy band that was gonna be a phase and started to take us a little more seriously.”
“We were cute!” protests Gary.
“I used to be really cute back then,” quips Jay.
“I was, too,” fires back Gary, laughing.
But if Rascal Flatts had to endure more than their fair share of criticism at the beginning, history has actually proven them visionary in a way. Turn on country radio now and, when there’s not a song about a dirt road or tailgates blaring, there’s an ultra-melodic Hunter Hayes, Taylor Swift or Dan + Shay tune that comes direct from the Flatts lineage.
“We hear it, too,” says Gary. “We’ll go, ‘Man, we’d have cut the snot out of that, too!’ There’s a lot of new artists coming out, it sounds like stuff we would have cut.”
“‘We Are Tonight’ sounds like a Flatts song!” interjects Joe Don, citing Billy Currington’s hit single.
“Those things are always good shots in the arm and confidence boosters that you were on to something and that you were doing something right,” admits Jay. “I love to know that we made an impact on country music that has lasted.” He pauses and, with a glint in his eye, adds, “But with that said, I want to make it clear that we’re still in the game, too, but even though we’ve got these kids that have come up behind us listening to our music. We want to kick their asses every single time we hit the stage because we’re still valid,” he says, a wide smile on his face. “While I respect them and admire what they’ve done, I also feel like we’ve got to this place to where people have started to say, ‘Maybe you’re on the tail end of your career,’ and we do not feel that way at all. I still feel like we’ve got some of the best music left to make inside of us.” Fans will have a chance to see for themselves when Flatts hits the road in May.
And perhaps their passion for songs is what really always sets them apart from the pack and has contributed to their current renaissance. “We’ve always followed our guts,” says Jay. “No one can pick hits, but you have strong feelings about songs, like, ‘Boy, if this ever gets heard, this might really move some people.’”
“To add to what Jay’s said, I’d say our harmonies,” says Gary. “That’s something that we truly feel like God has blessed us with.”
Jay agrees. “For us, it’s always been about the song and it’s always been about the chemistry that the three of us have together,” he says. “You cannot manufacture chemistry.”
No, but you can certainly get in the lab and play with the formula.