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Rascal Flatts gave up the comforts of home for the big time

Story by Tom Roland • Photo by Tim Campbell

I'm Movin' On" isn't just the name of Rascal Flatts' latest hit - it could be their motto. "If you're passionate about something you believe in, you gotta move on, move forward and try to go get it," says Joe Don Rooney. "Or one day, I guarantee you're gonna be kicking yourself in the butt for not at least attempting."

But for the men of Rascal Flatts - Joe Don, Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus - "I'm Movin' On" is more than simply a reminder of how far they've come. Each of them related to the song's story of heartbreak and its aftermath in very personal ways.

For example, the song helped Gary, whose mother and father divorced, to understand what his parents had gone through. "They tried to stay friends for the kids, but it takes a lot of time for parents to put their differences away," he reasons. "Those wounds have healed, but all that time had to pass so things could get better. That's what 'I'm Movin' On' was for me."

For Joe Don, the song is a reminder of how he had to let go of a three-year relationship to pursue his musical dreams. "She wanted to be a pediatrician, and I wanted to be a musician," he says. "I wanted to get on the road and tour, and she wasn't about that, so we had to separate."

Jay already knew a little something about leaving love behind for the spotlight - a lesson he learned from his mother. She won a talent contest in 1969, becoming the "Country Music Queen of Ohio" and nabbing a recording contract. Then love intervened.

"My mother and father were just dating at the time, and Dad was falling in love with her," explains Jay. "He told her he didn't see how their relationship could work out if she took the

contract, so she decided to stay in Columbus. I guess it's a good thing she did - otherwise, they wouldn't have had me!"

But when his own musical dreams called him away, Jay left the city his mother could not. "All I wanted to do was music," he recalls. "I was working construction, and I hated it. The winters were too cold and the summers were too hot, and I thought, 'This sucks. I'm busting up my hands, and that's what I need to do what I wanna do.' "

So he moved to Nashville in 1992 and became half of a Christian duo, East To West. They had some hits in the mid-'90s, but Jay felt musically confined and decided to pursue country, playing in Chely Wright's band before the formation of Rascal Flatts. "Obviously, my mother now lives vicariously through me," he smiles.

The other two Flatts guys had a harder time moving on from their hometowns. Gary, Jay's second cousin, had worked with the Department of Mental Retardation in Ohio for 10 years, and leaving a steady job and a workplace full of friends was daunting. "I like being comfortable," he chuckles.

Then, during a 1997 vacation, Gary stayed briefly with Jay, who heard him sing for the first time since they were kids. "I was literally blown away," remembers Jay. "I mean, this guy could not only sing country, but he could sing R&B, and he could emulate anything, and I was like, 'What in the world are you doing in Columbus?' "

It took months of phone calls to convince Gary to make the move to Nashville. There he sang with Christian artist Michael English, which earned him a few bucks, but his other gig - singing in clubs with Jay - was not quite making the grade financially. "We just got tips, so whatever was in the bucket is what I had," says Gary, "and honest to God, one night we made 27 cents. It was awful."

Not everything was so bad. Gary met his wife, Tara Richardson, while touring with Michael English in Decatur, Ala., and he and Jay began to generate interest in Nashville as a duo.

Meanwhile, Joe Don hadn't yet moved to Music City from his hometown of Picher, Okla. "I knew I wanted to live in Nashville," he reflects. "I knew that's where I was supposed to be, but I was scared to death to do it."

But then he scored a place in Chely Wright's band, and got to know one of his new bandmates: Jay DeMarcus. Jay introduced his new friend Joe Don to his cousin Gary in 1999, and by September, the new trio had signed with Lyric Street Records. Two months later they were in a recording studio, making the self-titled debut album - now gold - that has turned their lives around.

"Every dream I ever asked for, I've gotten," marvels Gary. "I don't know what I'm doing, but it seems to be working!"

Now they're hoping to continue that success. Rascal Flatts started recording their second album last month, and they're headed in a musical direction Joe Don describes as "a little earthier."

"We've had two years of touring, writing together and growing as individuals and as a group," he says. "I think the album's gonna show a lot of growth, and a little bit of musical change."

"We're gonna stretch a little bit," agrees Jay. "I think every artist should try some different things."

For Rascal Flatts, getting the opportunity to do those things meant leaving behind the comforts of home and familiar loves. But things worked out pretty well in the end - besides Gary's marriage, the other two are each dating someone, and in a way, Rascal Flatts itself has become a family.

"I think that's what life is about," concludes Joe Don. "Most people have the family they grew up with, then they get a family together, and they get a job somewhere and get used to the people they're surrounded by, and that becomes a family. It's all about moving on."