Rascal Flatts Discuss Making First Christmas Album 'The Greatest Gift of All'

Sheryl Nields
Rascal Flatts

Though Rascal Flatts have been hitting the country charts on regular occasion since 2000’s “Prayin’ For Daylight” launched their career on the fast track, there's still new musical ground for the six-time CMA Vocal Group of the Year to plow. Part of that landscape includes the 2016 release of The Greatest Gift of All, the band’s first-ever Christmas album.

Lead guitarist Joe Don Rooney tells Billboard that they didn’t want to just hastily record ten songs of the season, put their name on it, and release it to the public. Rather, they wanted to do things a little differently.

“We decided this past year that we were going to do a classic-style Christmas album, and really put some time into it,” he says. “We had enough time off in the summer that it worked out perfect. We were between country projects. We hired a guy named Tim Akers, who used to play keys for us on the road, who is with Vince Gill now. He’s a phenomenal conductor and arranger, but also an unbelievable musician. We sent him the songs that we wanted to do and told him he could arrange them any way he wanted to. There were no rules. We were taking a no-holds-barred kind of approach. He sent us back little work tapes, of just him on the piano and some charts. Jay [DeMarcus, the band's bassist] and I started listening to them, and we thought it was incredible. It was exactly what we wanted to do.”

Rooney admitted that putting a new wrinkle on beloved classics such as “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “The First Noel” took a definite game plan. “The arrangements were tough – getting in and recording them with the musicians and doing the songs and actual track beats were pretty aggressive. It was big boy stuff. We had a blast working on this record. We took the vocal tracks to Jay’s house, and did all of the overdubs, singing, and guitar parts there. It was a nice and relaxed atmosphere. We didn’t have any real time constraints. We had all summer to do it. The only weird thing was we recorded songs like ‘Let It Snow’ in hundred-degree temperatures. I’m really proud of the project. I can’t believe it’s taken us sixteen years to do a Christmas album, but I can tell you our moms are sure happy,” he says with a laugh.

The Greatest Gift of All benefits from the production work of DeMarcus, who Rooney says he earns all the credit he received for the album – and then some. “There’s no doubt about it. Jay is a genius. He was a prodigy, and went to a School of the Arts when he was old enough. Piano has been his first instrument forever, but he can play anything from drums to guitars.”

Rooney feels that the band is in good hands with DeMarcus, who also produced the bulk of the new Ronnie Dunn album, Tattooed Heart. “He has his thumb on the pulse of everything that is happening in mainstream country music. I think his heart is kind of wrapped up in this kind of production, when it comes to cutting big orchestral Christmas music. I think that’s where he really shines. He’s really good at leading a band or a choir. He brings all of that to the table, and is kind of an ace in the hole in a lot of ways. We’re so lucky to have him. We let him guide our set list during the shows, and he knows what breaks we need during the show. When we start rehearsing for a tour, he comes in with so many ideas. He lays them on us and we just listen. He molds the show into what his vision is, and through sixteen years, it’s worked pretty well. We’re blessed to have a guy like Jay in the band who likes doing it. He doesn't get stressed out by it, and he loves the challenge.”

Christmas has changed over the years for Rooney since his days growing up in Oklahoma. Now a husband (to model Tiffany Fallon) and a father of three, he relishes the chance to mark the holidays with their own traditions.

“Every Christmas Eve, my wife will have us all get a pair of matching pajamas. They are getting a little tighter on me as I’m getting older," he laughs. "But, it’s great to have our traditions now. I used to have traditions with my family, and now we have our own. It’s really neat. We have three kids now, and I tell Tiff all the time ‘I don’t know if we’re raising these babies, or if they are raising us.’ I feel like I learn more from them than I could ever teach them everyday.”

The Rascal Flatts guys are hard at work on a new country record in the near future, and can’t wait to hit the road in 2017 to promote it. Having earned a reputation for being one of the most encouraging headliners to their opening acts, Rooney says that they are only trying to pay it forward.

“We learned from the best. We were on tour with Jo Dee Messina back in 2001, then Toby Keith took us on our first really big tour in 2002. Then, we went out with Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, and in 2005, we started headlining. Kenny told us that ‘Your job is to get out there in front of all these people, and make them love you. I want you to steal my fans.’ It was good camaraderie, obviously, but we tell our opening acts – Chris Lane and Kelsea Ballerini this year – these people are packing in early to see you. Go out there, and take advantage of that. Have fun, and in a year or two, you’ll be doing your headlining shows. That’s the way it works. We’ve got to learn from so many of our heroes, and to be able to pass that along to the next generation of incredible country music artists is a joy and a privilege to get to do that.”


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