The lives of guitarist Joe Don Rooney, bassist/keyboardist Jay DeMarcus and lead singer Gary LeVox-collectively, the harmonizing multiplatinum country trio Rascal Flatts-have experienced some major shifts during the past two years: on the business side, a new label and new management; on the personal side, the joys and challenges of balancing career and fatherhood. So it's not hard to see why their eighth studio album, due April 3 on Big Machine Records, is called "Changed."
"We're all three changed men from just what life has had in store for each of us," Rooney says. "And also how this business and success has affected us."
The group has been successful since the beginning. It debuted in 2000 with the top three single "Prayin' for Daylight," and enjoyed an incredible run with the Disney-owned Lyric Street label before it shuttered in April 2010. Rascal Flatts has placed 44 titles on Billboard's country singles chart, including 11 No. 1s, among them "Fast Cars and Freedom," "My Wish," "These Days," "What Hurts the Most" and "Bless the Broken Road," which topped the chart for five weeks in 2005. Six of the band's first seven albums debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, and all have sold more than 1 million units.
Rascal Flatts has sold 21.5 million albums total, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The act's best seller-2004's Feels Like Today-has scanned 5.2 million, and 2006's Me and My Gang has sold 4.9 million. In addition to the band's sales and numerous awards and honors-including induction as Grand Ole Opry members last October-the group is known for charitable endeavors. Last month it received the artist humanitarian award at the Country Radio Seminar.
Big Machine had to do some scrambling to release Rascal Flatts' previous album, Nothing Like This, in November 2010, since it had picked up the album for distribution in the wake of Lyric Street's closure. The set debuted atop the country albums chart and has sold 1.1 million, according to SoundScan. "The team at Big Machine did a great job," Rooney says. "Now with this new album, it's all from the ground up. It's all Big Machine Records."
The group will support the release with a summer tour, a deluxe edition and a concert/documentary event to be screened in theaters. Expectations are high. "They each had a hand in writing for this project," says Kelly Rich, Big Machine Label Group VP of sales, marketing and interactive. LeVox co-wrote the title track and penned "Great Big Love." DeMarcus contributed "Let It Hurt" and Rooney wrote "Sunrise."
The album's lead single, "Banjo," rises 11-9 on the Hot Country Songs chart this week. "We're just coming off of two ballads," LeVox says. "So we really wanted to [come ] firing out of the gates with something that we thought was a great representation of the album, something fresh and uptempo."
Musically, LeVox says the album contains more uptempo tunes overall than previous records, but lyrically it's a diverse collection about home, love and family that reflects where the members are in their lives. "Being older and wiser and having kids, the songs definitely touch us and move us in different ways now," he says. "It makes us look deeper."
"It's a bunch of songs that reflect the past 11 years," Rooney adds. "Songs that reflect pain and going through heartache, songs that reflect being in love and holding onto it for dear life for the rest of your life."
HELP FROM ABOVE
The new album's centerpiece is the title track, a compelling ballad written by LeVox, Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley. "Neil was telling me about his daughter. When they were on vacation, she said, 'Dad, I want to be baptized,' so they found a minister. It was a sunset baptismal out in the ocean," LeVox recalls. "When he brought the song to me, he already had the first half of the verse: 'I came up out of the water, raised my hands up to the Father, gave it all to him that day, felt a new wind kiss my face.'"
The three collaborators built the song from there, but LeVox feels they had some heavenly guidance. "We really felt like we had something magical on that," he says. "The three of us just held the pen and God kind of wrote the whole thing. It talks about how we all screw up and make mistakes and we can all change, but you have to be man enough or woman enough to say, 'Hey, I'm sorry.' Because you can't live your life with regret. It's time to change and sometimes the hardest thing in life is just forgiving yourself."
The song was written in the fall of 2010 and Rooney says that when LeVox played it for them, it resonated strongly because of the tumultuous year the group had experienced.
"We had all this change going on through the year 2010 with Lyric Street Records shutting their doors and Big Machine Records picking us up, which was a godsend. And we parted ways with management," he says of leaving Trey Turner and Doug Nichols at Turner Nichols & Associates and signing with Clarence Spalding's Spalding Entertainment. "So we were jumping in bed with a new manager and through all this new stuff going on, this song found us. That song really set up how this album came to be."
Changed will be issued in both standard and deluxe editions, with the latter featuring 15 songs, including four that Rooney, DeMarcus and LeVox produced themselves. "It's the first time we've ever done that and it's something that we've been wanting to do for a long time. Dann was just a gem about understanding that," Rooney says of Dann Huff, who co-produced the rest of the record with the band members.
"We've co-produced every project we've ever done," LeVox adds. "It's nice to get another set of ears on things. We make a great team-us and Dann Huff-but we just wanted to do [some songs] on our own."
Among the tunes they produced for the deluxe edition is a cover of Shenandoah's "Next to You, Next to Me." "Marty Raybon is one of my favorite singers of all time," LeVox says. "I grew up singing Shenandoah in the clubs and the first song we ever sang together was a Shenandoah tune, 'Church on Cumberland Road.'"
COMING TO YOUR TOWN
Another new cover tune that Rascal Flatts has in store for fans is connected with the group's upcoming American Band tour. "We have Little Big Town out with us starting June 15 in Boston," Rooney says. "There's also the Eli Young Band and Edens Edge. It's all bands, something that we've been talking about doing for a long time . . . We went into the studio and recorded the old Grand Funk Railroad song 'We're an American Band,' and we brought in all the bands that are going to be on tour with us to sing. It's just awesome to hear this wall of vocals."
The track isn't on the new album, but will be available through a Rascal Flatts app. "The product sticker on the physical release will promote the download of the Rascal Flatts app with the opportunity to hear an exclusive song," Big Machine's Rich says.
Rascal Flatts has long been one of the most successful acts on the road. Last year it earned $22.8 million from 42 shows attended by 535,177 concert-goers, according to Billboard Boxscore. "The Flatts fan has come to expect a hit-driven, fun summer party," says Rob Beckham, co-head of William Morris Endeavor Nashville. "They always deliver, and the fact that the tour is all bands makes this tour even more special."
Beckham predicts this will be Rascal Flatts' biggest tour yet. "The fact that they continually sell out arenas, amphitheaters and stadiums is a tremendous credit to them," he says. "They continually push the envelope."
Big Machine has teamed with Live Nation to give away a trip to see Rascal Flatts on tour. John Zarling, Big Machine Label Group VP of promotion and media strategy, says CMT will also run a promotion with Taylor Guitars, giving fans a chance to design a custom guitar for the trio to play live. Additionally, the label is supporting the new album with a documentary the band filmed that will be broadcast in theaters nationwide on April 5. "We have teamed with AEG Network Live and [distributor] NCM/Fathom for a one-of-a-kind event," Zarling says. "The approximately 115-minute event will feature never-before-seen content, including live performances of songs from the new album and some of their most memorable hits. It will also spotlight one-on-one interviews with Gary, Jay and Joe Don, with each of them taking fans behind the scenes into their daily lives."
The documentary will be simulcast in 650 theaters, with the trio attending a world premiere in New York. "We knew a red carpet event in Times Square was the perfect location to celebrate Changed," Zarling says. "Fans will also have the chance to be part of this event with select radio stations flying winners into New York . . . Radio stations will also have the chance to win tickets to see the event at local theaters in every market."
Clearly, the members of Rascal Flatts have come a long way since they began performing together at a club in Nashville's famed Printer's Alley.
"It's been a heck of a run," Rooney says. "It's been a grind at times, but it's been a blessing. We're asking each other, 'Do we have it in the tank to go farther? Do we have it in the tank to go another 10 years and try to make this thing really special?' We feel like we do . . . What keeps us together is the three of us. It's love and admiration for each other. There's an old saying, 'Blood is thicker than water,' but love is thicker than blood, and I think that's what we have. It's a love thing."