Breaking Expectations: The Triumph of Rascal Flatts
By Deborah Evans Price
© 2008 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.
You've sold 15 million albums, scored nine No. 1 singles and bested every other artist across all genres of music to become the top selling act of 2006 of all genres. So what's next? That question faced Lyric Street Records sensation Rascal Flatts early last year as the trio began planning its Platinum-selling album, Still Feels Good, which was later released on Sept. 25, 2007. And the answer? "We just wanted to go in with the same ammo we've always had and cut the best music we could," said Jay DeMarcus. Still, DeMarcus and his fellow Rascals Gary LeVox and Joe Don Rooney weren't oblivious to expectations. "The guys and I always try to find songs that will keep appealing to the masses the way our music has been able to so far," DeMarcus said. "We pick music that speaks to us with a message that we want to say, but definitely fans and radio are the two biggest aspects of our career, so we make music for Since their self-titled debut in 2000, Rascal Flatts have rocked Country radio with "Bless the Broken Road," "Fast Cars and Freedom," "Mayberry," "Me and My Gang," "My Wish," "These Days," "Prayin' for Daylight" and other hits. They've also topped adult contemporary charts with Steve Robson and Jeffrey Steele's "What Hurts the
Most," which made them one of only three Country acts to have a No. 1 song at both AC and Country radio in the same week. Industry honors flowed their way as well, including the CMA Horizon Award in 2002 and five consecutive selections as CMA Vocal Group of the Year.
Still Feels Good posted first week sales of 547,000 units, making it the week's top selling album across all genres of music. Still Feels Good is the band's third consecutive album to open at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and has since sold more than 1.6 million copies. Included in its first week sales are more than 44,000 digital albums, making it the biggest Country digital album debut in Nielsen SoundScan history.
This success, according to Dann Huff, who co-produced Still Feels Good with the band, stems from "a combination of two things: the sound of those three voices and their choice of songs. They are absolutely dedicated to singing songs that make you want to sing with them. They sing meaningful songs in an entertaining way."
DeMarcus and LeVox, second cousins from Columbus, Ohio, laid the foundation for this phenomenon when they both wound up in Chely Wright's band. They performed together in Nashville's nightclub strip Printer's Alley, and when their regular guitarist wasn't available one night, Rooney was called to sit in. The chemistry proved magical, especially in the harmonies that have become a signature of the Rascal Flatts sound.
"The reason this whole thing has worked is the combination we have together, not only as business partners and members of a band, but we're great friends," said Rooney. "It's almost like we're brothers at this point. We have this tremendous connection and love for each other and a desire to sing together. As long as we stay true to that and roll with the flow, I think we'll be just fine."
That connection allowed the group to take some chances in recording Still Feels Good. As LeVox explained, "We said, 'OK, in April, May and June, we're taking off. We're going to sit in the studio and create this album.' The four previous albums, we'd be on the road on the weekend and we'd come back on Sunday. Then Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we'd be in the studio, trying to cut it. This time, we took more time. We dedicated our lives to sitting down for three months and creating an album."
Their only show during that period was at LP Field for the 2007 CMA Music Festival. "We let it all hang out," said LeVox. "We sang like it was the last time we would ever sing again. We were so hungry for the stage."
"CMA does an amazing job," Rooney added. "It's so easy to get up there and do your show. I noticed, particularly this year, the setup and teardown of each band or artist performing was really, really quick. It gets better every year and the crowds are getting bigger. It's almost like a big family reunion."
Speaking of family, the guys are quick to call Huff one of their own. "Dann comes from a band background with Whiteheart," said LeVox. "A lot of times, producers have never been in bands. But Dann is one of the finest musicians to have ever played a guitar in a band, so he knows what he's looking for. What he wanted to do is take our live show and capture it on CD."
"He's a consistent friend and confidant," added DeMarcus. "He comes out on the road for a weekend, just to see what we're doing in our live shows. He is as passionate about this as we are. I live, eat and breathe and am consumed by music, and to have someone making your record with you that's totally in touch with those emotions and gets your point of view, it's really refreshing. So, for us, Dann is more than a producer. He doesn't just make music with us. He is the fourth Flatt."
"I'm proud to be called the fourth Flatt," Huff said, laughing. "But do I really have the hair for it?"
In addition to co-producing with Huff, the band members took a more active role by co-writing five of the 13 songs for Still Feels Good one of which features a guest appearance from actor and musician Jamie Foxx, a friend of LeVox's for more than 13 years.
"We used to sit around for hours at Jamie's house, singing and playing and having a good time," LeVox said. "So when Jay and Joe and myself wrote this song, we thought it would be great to have him on it. I called him up just to say, 'Hey, man, you've got to hear this song. I think you could really, really kill it.' He said, 'Tell you what. I'll sing on your record if you guys will sing on mine.' I said, 'Alright.' He asked
what the name of the song was. I said, 'She Goes All the Way,' and he said, 'Man, I just want to meet that ol' girl.'"
Though Rascal Flatts is their obvious priority, DeMarcus and Rooney are branching out too. DeMarcus has produced cuts for Jo Dee Messina and James Otto, and Rooney is spending time in the studio with Nashville-based singer Brian Taylor and a rock band in Los Angeles called Stars Align.
"It's always fun to do some other projects," Rooney noted. "I try to spend time helping other people like I was helped seven or eight years ago, when I got this Rascal Flatts deal.
"The awards are wonderful and all the accolades," he continued. "But the greatest thing is the way we are able to record songs that have changed people's lives. They've really made an impact. [People tell us about] putting down the bottle or not committing suicide, and having joy and happiness in their lives that they didn't have before. Those are the positives."
Such blessings aren't taken for granted. "For so many years, I was that person sitting on that lawn," LeVox said, referring to the most distant seats for audiences at outdoor concerts. "It was just a dream to be on the other side one day. So I decided to play every show like it's the last one I'll ever play. Every night before we go out there, I say a prayer, just thanking God for giving us the opportunity to stand on another stage and showcase the talent he's given all of us."