Rascal Flatts has achieved in six short years what many acts can only hope for in the length of a career.
In addition to numerous awards, the band has sold more than 8.8 million records, according to Nielsen SoundScan; scored 13 top 10 hits, including five No. 1 singles; and is one of the top touring acts on the road, country or otherwise.
In February, the band’s hit “Bless the Broken Road,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, was named best country song at the 48th annual Grammy Awards.
Although the honor goes to the writers of the song — Bobby Boyd, Jeff Hanna and Marcus Hummon — the award gave the band cause to celebrate as well.
On the eve of the release of its highly anticipated fourth album, “Me and My Gang,” on Lyric Street Records, Jay DeMarcus, Gary LeVox and Joe Don Rooney talked with Billboard about their past, their future, their music and working with a new producer.
Who were some of your early influences?
LeVox: Alabama was huge for us — the songs that they chose and the harmonies. Shenandoah — [lead singer] Marty Raybon, to this day, is the finest country singer on the planet. Shenandoah had a huge impact on me. Of course, George Jones and Earl Thomas Conley — just the tone of their voices and songs they’ve recorded. Keith Whitley and Stevie Wonder, too. [Stevie] is one of the best singers on the planet.
Rooney: Being a guitar player… people like Eric Clapton. I love Jeff Beck’s playing and Chet Atkins and Vince Gill, those styles. I love technical players like Steve Vai and Larry Carlton. [I am a] huge Brent Mason fan. Dann Huff is one of my heroes, too. He always has been. He can do it all, the rock stuff, he can blues it up, too, and he can do some country chicken pickin’, which I think is incredible.
DeMarcus: My mother and father are big musical heroes of mine. I think it was because it was the first memories that I have of actually hearing music and falling in love with it and wanting to be a part of it in some way. Both my father and mother made their living as musicians in Columbus, Ohio, and that was a big part of my early life growing up.
Some of my biggest commercial musical influences would be people like Merle Haggard, George Jones, of course, Johnny Cash. People that wrote and sang their own stuff, I really admired. I was an ’80s child, so I grew up loving all kinds of ’80s rock. I like R&B, too.
When did you first realize that performing was what you wanted to do for a living?
LeVox: The first thing that I recorded [was when] I was 7 years old. My granddad and I would play on the weekend. We had a little old recorder, and we’d just sit there and play music. I knew I loved it. As I grew up, sports became a big part of my life, but I always sang. We had the concert choirs in school, [and] I did all the musicals and all that stuff. Being from Columbus, Ohio, you didn’t have all the outlets like being in Music City on Broadway. I knew I wanted to [be a singer] in high school, but I just didn’t know where to start.
DeMarcus: I was at a Dolly Parton concert when I was about 9 years old. I saw her at the Ohio State Fair, and it was my first real concert that I’d been to. I saw that crowd and how they reacted and how great of a performer she was and the band. Just the energy of the whole thing collectively really captured me. I remember specifically that night telling my mom that that’s exactly what I want to do someday.
Rooney: By the time I was 15 or 16 years old, I’d get little gigs here and there. A light bulb went off, and it was like, “Damn, I could play guitar and make money from this. Wow, what a concept.” I started taking it serious around that time. That’s when I knew that was what I wanted to do. I always had my sights set on Nashville, never anywhere like New York or L.A. I always knew that Nashville was where I needed to be.
How did you get signed to Lyric Street Records?
LeVox: We were playing the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar [in Nashville] every Monday and Tuesday night, so we had kind of built a fan base already. We were starting to get a buzz around town, and so we had other [label] meetings set up. But Lyric Street was our first stop. We really liked the whole Disney connection. After we left Lyric Street, we really didn’t think they liked us, so we thought, “Well, maybe we should take some of these other meetings.” We went home, and about an hour later they called back and said, “Hey, we love you guys.” That was in ’99.
Rooney: We [had] just cut a three-song demo, which really was a little LP because… we completely mastered them and everything, and they sounded great. They were ready to be sent out. We did that with [producers] Mark Bright and Marty Williams. Dann [Huff] at the time was producing SheDaisy on Lyric Street, and Mark Bright and Dann were also good friends. He played it for Dann, and Dann was like, “Hey, I’ll call Lyric Street right now,” so we never went anywhere else.
That just happened to be the first label we got a hold of, and they just jumped all over it. Hats off to Dann for kicking it off for us, and now here we are working with him. It’s funny how things work out.
What were some of the band’s early goals?
LeVox: It was a miracle in the first place to get signed. We wanted a record deal real bad, and we were just going to keep doing it until somebody said stop. After we got signed, the thing was to get played on radio, to have a gold record and have platinum and to have a No. 1 song. All the basic things that any other artist would want, just to be successful at something you love to do.
DeMarcus: We were kind of young and naïve and didn’t realize how hard it really is to compete for a spot at radio. [Lyric Street] took us on a bus, and they schlepped us around all over the country for four months. We would go singing in these conference rooms and doing these interviews with these program directors and music directors for radio stations and do our best to sell ourselves. Our main goal was to get our first single played on the radio and, hopefully, it would start a groundswell of excitement.
What are your goals now as a band?
DeMarcus: Our goal now is to be better than we were yesterday. There’s a danger in becoming complacent and sort of settling with what you have. The thing that I try to preach all the time is, “Don’t ever think that you’ve arrived. You can do better than you were yesterday,” and I think that’s what we try to do with each record, each concert, each show that we put out on the road. Just try to be better than we were before.
You changed producers for the new album, from Mark Bright and Marty Williams, who produced your first three records, to Dann Huff. What is the story behind that?
Rooney: Sometimes in this business you can sit idle for too long, and we kind of felt like we were sitting idle. We were having success and were in a good place, but still felt like something needed to give or be inspired, really. It was nothing against them, it was just that we wanted to go another direction.
DeMarcus: Not to diminish the things those guys have done for us — they were very, very much a big part of where we are right now — but I felt like it was time for a change, and I know the other guys did, too.
We’d known Dann for a long, long time and respected his work. Dann came from a very band-oriented point of view — being a musician himself and playing in several bands. He got what we were trying to communicate live. He’d come out and watch the shows.
LeVox: Looking at Dann’s record, we absolutely knew that he was the man for where we were trying to go. He pushed us into different areas that we hadn’t been pushed before. All producers have a standard thing: They get session players to come in, and they kind of do things the same way. But Dann said, “I think we should cut this record like a band.” We love that band aspect, so we went in and cut it like a band. Joe Don played guitar on everything, Jay played bass on every song on the album. It was a lot of fun, it was a nice change.
Have the types of songs you have recorded changed as you have gotten older and matured?
DeMarcus: As time has gone on, we’ve definitely cut different types of things. When your youth starts to fade, different things are important to you than they were even six years ago.
LeVox: But the foundation for it is still the same, no matter if we wrote it or whoever wrote it. At the end of the day, it all starts from a great song. We spend all of our time trying to write those songs and trying to find those songs. Once you get to a certain point in your career, all the songs that are getting pitched to you are good, so it’s just finding the great gems.
Rooney: Yes, we’ve probably gotten a little older now and grown a little more as artists and probably are gravitating more towards songs that speak more to our age maybe. All I know is when we listen to a song, we know if we love it or not usually by the end of the first chorus. [If] it’s got us hooked and we have that little thing we call the “goose bump factor” … that’s usually a song we’ll take in and try to cut and see what we can do with it.
As writers, band members have contributed songs to each of your previous albums. Did you end up with something on the new album?
LeVox: Yes, absolutely. There’s one on this album that the three of us wrote together, and Jay has one on here that he co-wrote and Joe Don has one that he co-wrote. You start getting into trouble as an artist when you say, “We’re only going to record things that we’ve written,” especially when you live in a town where some of the greatest songwriters in the world live. Our egos aren’t the ones speaking, it’s our hearts. We just want to have longevity in what we are doing, [so when songwriters] Jeffrey Steele and Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley and Danny Orton and those kind of cats pitch you a song, you listen to them.
Is there a story behind “Pieces,” the song you three wrote together?
DeMarcus: We brought a writer out named Monty Powell, and he spent the weekend with us. We churned out about five songs that weekend, and that was one of the first ones we wrote together. I think Joe Don had the title “Rest in Pieces,” and I started playing this groove on a chorus and we had the first couple of lines. Then we came back to the bus after the show and finished the song in about 40 minutes.
What is next for you? Are there solo projects in the future? Do you want to produce other acts?
LeVox: Rascal Flatts is always first and foremost. Joe Don, on the side, is working with a band in L.A., and Jay just produced Chicago’s latest record. Producing is a real big thing for Jay. His creativity as an artist really fuels his fire, producing. As long as none of that stuff gets in the way of Rascal Flatts, it’s all good. That really pushes Jay, which carries over and brings new light into our projects and what we do.
We’re excited for Jay. He’s a really, really good producer and has a great ear. Of course, we co-produced [our] last three albums. That’s a really cool thing and a nice asset to have, but Rascal Flatts will, hopefully, be around for a long time. As long as the fans want us, we’ll be here.
DeMarcus: My main focus has been and always will be Rascal Flatts, and I wouldn’t do anything detrimental to what we’re trying to do. Our focus right now is this new record and trying to promote it as much as possible, and really honing in on this new show that we’ve got out this year, which is one of the things that I’m most proud of. It’s a great show and a great set, and I’m really excited about this year.
Over the next few months I’m going to be looking for something else to do now that the Chicago thing is behind me. I’m sort of getting the bug again to produce something else, and there are a few irons that I have in the fire.
Rooney: We want [to be involved in] every part of the industry. I would love to be able to one day in the future — hopefully short future — have our own publishing company. I don’t want to say “have our own label,” but if that would pop up, I don’t think we’d ever turn it down — but at one point, one day. We’re extremely excited about being on Lyric Street Records right now. [We could] maybe have that on the side and bring new artists in that [we] believe in. I would love to do that, to give people a chance to make it in this business like people gave us a chance. Not only that, I would love to work with artists and produce them. I’m producing some things on the side right now, just little things, but not with anyone with a record deal yet.
To help launch this new record you visited radio stations, and you continue to do what you can with radio as far as phoners, station visits, etc., are concerned. Why is that important to you?
DeMarcus: They are our biggest allies. It just makes sense, because they are our voice and they got us to where we are. Along with the fans, [they] allow us to do what we do every day for a living. I don’t feel like [we] could ever forget that. I don’t think [we] could ever stop remembering the one that brought [us] to the dance.
What has been the band’s biggest success to date? Is there an award that stands out, a No. 1 record, a show?
Rooney: I think it just happened, that Grammy. Of course, it goes to the songwriters for “Bless the Broken Road” [but] proves what Rascal Flatts can do. I think it shows what true artists we are. For the industry or for maybe the naysayers out there that don’t really believe… that just lets them know that we are here and we are for real. We can make music that anybody can be proud of and that anybody can like. It kind of puts a more serious label on us, and I like that. That Grammy is a step in the right direction for us and a big moment for us.
LeVox: It is the culmination of everything at this point. A No. 1 record is amazing, but it is the total of all the great things that have happened. Perhaps it’s the freedom to make the kind of music we want to.