In an era when every success in country music is hard-won and breakthrough debuts have become almost non-existent, the story of Rascal Flatts has been nothing short of incredible. Their platinum debut CD spawned four top-10 singles, including the chart-topping "Prayin' For Daylight" and the multi-media smash "I'm Movin' On," and stayed on the charts for two years. Its platinum status places the trio in elite company, joining SHeDAISY and the Dixie Chicks as a group whose debut sold a million copies.
As impressive as those facts and figures are, they are far from the whole story. Rascal Flatts – comprised of Jay DeMarcus, Gary LeVox, and Joe Don Rooney – quickly earned two #1 CMT videos and a #1 GAC video, scored appearances on the soundtracks of "The Emperor's New Groove" and "We Were Soldiers," and were the subjects of a one-hour live television concert. Along the way, they were voted the ACM's 2001 New Vocal Group of the Year.
If it seems as though their level of success – not to mention their schedule – has been breathtaking, you'll get no argument from the three young men in the center of the maelstrom. "It's been incredible," they say, almost in unison. "It's unbelievable – the thrill of a lifetime," adds Jay. "We're beyond blessed. It keeps getting better and better. It's meant bigger crowds and more people knowing our music."
While following up such debut success can be daunting in ordinary times, it would seem to be even more so given the industry's current state. That wasn't the case for the three young men who have ridden confidence, stellar musicianship and impeccable harmonies toward success since the first time they got together at a little club in Nashville's fabled Printer's Alley. They were more than anxious for the chance to bring their added experience to their second CD, called "Melt."
"A lot of people talk about the sophomore blues," says Gary, "but we weren't scared by it. We were excited about the chance to get some new music out and to make use of the creative control Lyric Street gave us."
"We're very serious about the art of making music," says Jay, "and we felt we were capable of being even more involved in the creative process. It was great to be able to be more hands-on in the crafting of this record."
One change this time involved the increased use of the trio's world-class musicianship. Jay, who played keyboards and acted as bandleader for Chely Wright, brought his instrumental, as well as his vocal, skills to bear on "Melt," playing bass and taking a major role in arranging the trio's vocals. Joe Don, whose instrumental skills have earned him comparisons with the likes of Vince Gill, handled a good deal of the guitar work on the project. Both were the perfect complement to the amazing vocal ability Gary has brought to both of Rascal Flatts' CD's.
The three brought another dimension to "Melt," taking on the role of co-producers. One added responsibility came as they weighed their own improving songwriting skills against those of country's other stellar writers.
"It's a very democratic thing," says Joe Don of the process. "I think we've all become better songwriters in the last couple years, but we're still going to live and die by the motto, 'The best song wins,' no matter what."
In fact, when two outside songs the trio couldn't resist came in late in the search, one of the songs dropped to make room had been written by all three members. It was symbolic of the intensive and painstaking song search.
"It's a process that has been long and tedious," says Joe Don. "It started two or three years ago, and we went through two or three thousand songs. That's one great thing about our co-producers, Mark Bright and Marty Williams. We can really trust their judgment on songs as we search for the best material."
That perspective held true even in the light of their outside songwriting success. Jay's "Jezebel" appeared on a
album, Joe Don's "Right Now" is on a Chad Brock album, and Gary's cut "This Pretender" on a Joe Diffie's album.
The seeds of the trio were sewn in Columbus, Ohio, where second cousins Gary and Jay grew up as close friends. Their musical families got together often for jam sessions, inspiring a love of music in both.
Jay took that love of music to Nashville in 1992, turning his voice and instrumental skills (he plays guitar, bass, keyboards, mandolin, and others) into a quickly productive career. He earned his first record deal as part of a Christian group called East to West. In 1997, he finally convinced a reluctant Gary to leave behind his job with the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and following his musical dreams as well.
"We started writing together," says Jay. "We caught up on lost time and sang every chance we got. We just hit it hard. We'd stay up endless nights writing music and playing together."
Jay met Joe Don when both landed jobs in Wright's band. Joe Don had grown up in tiny Picher, Oklahoma, gleaning influences from his brothers and sisters, whose tastes ran the gamut. It was in nearby Grove that he picked up his knack for country.
"There was a show called the Grand Lake Opry, and when I was 19 I worked there," he says. Guest appearances by the likes of
Merle Haggard, Porter Wagoner, and Connie
Smith helped whet his appetite for the big-time.
As he and Jay worked in Wright's band, Jay and Gary were working in a Printer's Alley club with a part-time guitarist. When he couldn't make it one night, Jay invited Joe Don to sit in. A few bars into the first song they sang, they knew they had something special. Singer Mila Mason heard them and mentioned them to Williams, who set up a live audition with Bright. They recorded some demos and interested producer Dann Huff, who in turn called Lyric Street Senior VP, A&R Doug Howard.
With their first album out, Rascal Flatts hit the road hard, gaining thousands of new fans and opening for the likes of Alan Jackson, Jo Dee Messina,
and Toby Keith. One particularly memorable day found them in Atlanta on a bill with Jackson and opening act Cyndi Thompson.
"It was in Atlanta, which has been a huge market for us," says Joe Don. "There were probably 15,000 people there and while much of it was undoubtedly Alan's crowd, people were already there in huge numbers for Cyndi and then for us. They sang every lyric to every song we sang that night. It was just incredible. Then we met Alan on his bus and he told us how special he thought 'I'm Movin' On' was and how he thought we sang the fire out of it. Having one of your heroes say something like that to your face is something I'll remember for a long time."
The rising tide of popularity became a tidal wave with the release of "I'm Movin' On," a phenomenon that still leaves band members shaking their heads.
"The song 'I'm Movin' On' became bigger than us," says Jay. "It's one of those songs with such a powerful message it can move anybody in any phase of life. If you're 12 and lose a parent, 35 and going through a divorce, or 70 and losing somebody to cancer, you've got to face moving on. It's a universal song that really did more than we expected. It's turned our lives upside-down. We're still catching up to it."
The milestones kept coming. They played the Grand Ole Opry and recorded "Walk the Llama Llama," a song penned by Sting for "The Emperor's New Groove" soundtrack winning them more fans, including among the younger set in their own families.
"My niece and nephew think I'm cool because we sang "Walk the Llama Llama," says Jay.
The hit songs and the relentless work ethic drove them inexorably toward platinum status, and it was there that they caught their breath long enough to appreciate how far they'd come.
"Definitely, going platinum was our biggest goal," says Joe Don. "When we reached that stage, we knew we'd really done what we'd set out to do with that record. "Now," adds Gary, "we want to expand more on the foundation we started to build with that first album, and with 'Melt', I think we've accomplished that."
The combination of experience and confidence makes the future that much more promising for Rascal Flatts.
"We've been together for awhile now," says Jay, "singing here and on the road. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and we can home in on those strengths that have made us successful. Now I hope this album gives us a little more credibility. We've fought hard against the boy band image, which we never intended to have, and we hope this helps people know we're serious musicians who care a lot about the integrity of our music."
Most fans need no such prodding.
"It's awesome to see people responding so well to music that really came from your soul," says Jay. "It's been almost surreal. I keep waiting to wake up."
The excitement holds even in the midst of the hard day-to-day work necessary to keep the dream moving forward.
Says Gary, "We're just excited about getting some new music out there and enjoying life on the road. We're absolutely living out a dream, and we're just going to keep on rolling."
Awards include --
CMT Flameworthy Video Music Awards
||Group / Duo Video of the Year
Academy of Country Music
||Song of the Year
Academy of Country Music
||Top Vocal Group
Academy of Country Music
||New Vocal Group of the Year
Hit songs include --
- Why Wait
- Bless The Broken Road
- Fast Cars And Freedom
- My Wish
- Take Me There
- These Days
- What Hurts The Most
- I Melt
- Winner At A Losing Game
- Life Is a Highway
- Love You Out Loud
- Prayin' for Daylight
- I'm Movin' On
- Me And My Gang
Rascal Flatts may be available for your next special event!
Gary LeVox -
Jul 10, 1970
Jay DeMarcus -
Apr 26, 1971
Joe Don Rooney -
Sep 13, 1975
Formed: ..in Tennessee