Issue Date: November 2, 2008
Rascal Flatts: Country Music's Supertrio
They're nominated for a remarkable sixth straight CMA award this year.
But who are these guys who call themselves Rascal Flatts?
Our conversations with all three band members may surprise you.
By Dennis McCafferty
"Joe Don is the dreamer. Gary is our voice, the soul of our sound. And I'm the studio geek."
Tell Us: What's the best country music live act? Rascal Flatts, Keith or Chesney?
Too cool for the room? Rascal Flatts doesn't roll that way. For a USA WEEKEND Magazine cover shoot, members of the hotter-than-hot country band walk in one by one -- lead singer Gary LeVox, bassist Jay DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney -- and convey a friendly, welcoming vibe. Classic rock blasts from speakers -- the Stones, the Who, AC/DC -- and the Flatts members sing along in rich, boisterous tones that fill the studio. "For encores, we used to play Boston and the Edgar Winter Group," says Rooney, relaxing before the shoot starts. "We incorporate all of our influences into a show. It's cool to be country. But it's also cool to do something else."
It's a winning formula. With "Greatest Hits Volume 1" now out, Flatts has sold more than 17 million albums and earned $40 million touring in 2007. Flatts is nominated for the Country Music Association's Vocal Group of the Year award, which the trio has won for five straight years. (With a win, Flatts will tie the Statler Brothers' record for consecutive awards.)
Unified as a group, each member has a distinct story to tell. Here are three of them: the road life that fuels their passion; the family ties that shape who they are; and the individual traits that combine to make Rascal Flatts the top country group today.
Go to top
Jay DeMarcus: The parts that make a whole
When we're together, we're a group. Individually, we each bring something unique to Rascal Flatts: Joe Don is the dreamer. Gary is our voice, the soul of our sound. And I'm the studio geek, I guess.
If we're trying to work out a song that just isn't coming together, Gary will retreat to his farm and give it a lot of thought, then come back with an answer. I'm the fixer. I lock myself in the studio, roll up my sleeves and work on the problem until it's solved. Joe Don is the guy who makes you realize that there's nothing we can't overcome. So the three of us complement each other very well. Gary will come up with a fresh idea after he's had some time away. I'll already have come up with some new arrangements. Joe Don will play some terrific chord progression that he just came up with -- he's one of the best guitarists anywhere, right up there with Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. Before you know it, we've worked out what seemed like an impossible situation.
We always had these different personalities, and they all came together when we met. We had quite a ride getting there, too. Gary was pursuing a record deal in Los Angeles for a while before coming to Nashville and ended up rooming with Jamie Foxx -- long before he became "Oscar-winning actor" Jamie Foxx. This was in the mid-1990s, and the guy who managed Gary then was good friends with Jamie's manager. As a result, Gary and Jamie grew close. Gary didn't have a place to stay, so Jamie let him crash at his place. They're still friends, which is how Jamie ended up singing "She Goes All the Way" on our album "Still Feels Good." We'd love to do something for one of Jamie's albums -- just looking for the right song.
By 1997, Gary moved to Nashville. Joe Don and I already were there. We were in another band, but I moonlighted at a place called the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar with Gary. One night, our guitarist couldn't make it, and we asked Joe Don tofill in. When he sang harmony with Gary and me, we knew we had something special.
Some say that we need to be more country, that we sound too much like a pop band. But we grew up listening to all kinds of music. We bring diverse voices like Jamie's into our sound. And it's good for country music because more and more performers from outside Nashville want to be a part of it now. That's why you have someone like Darius Rucker coming up with a top country hit.
People say we need to wear cowboy hats to be a country act. We don't agree. Country hats work for some acts, but it's just not who we are. Country music is all about having a big heart and telling stories about the way real people live, with a rich, soulful sound. We know who we are, and we stick with it. So far, it's gotten us to where we've wanted to be.
Go to top
Gary Levox: Family matters
Jay and I grew up as cousins in Columbus, Ohio. Our families were together all the time, especially at this time of the year, with Thanksgiving coming up. Man, we'd have three full turkey meals every year -- the first one at 11 a.m. and the last at night after the last NFL game was over. Jay and I came to be like brothers. We could look each other in the eye and know what the other was thinking. We still do that.
"Jay and I could look each other in the eye and know what the other was thinking. We still do that."
Music always played a big role in our lives. I started singing at 7. My first song was "The Old Rugged Cross." My grandfather liked it so much, he taped it on one of those old clunky cassette players. He was so proud of me. I've kept that tape to this day.
At the same time, Joe Don was growing up in the same close-knit way. He was the youngest of four kids, from a town called Picher, Okla. He graduated with just 23 people in his class. His mom and dad have been together for 50 years now, and they've always been a musical family, too. Their values became his values.
After Jay left for Nashville, every Friday, I'd get off work and drive from Ohio to Jay's place, and we'd both spend all weekend long writing and working on songs. Then, every Sunday, I drove all the way back home. After a while, I'd spend nights just singing in my mom's kitchen and was feeling like I should be in Nashville all the time. But I worked for the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation, which helped mentally disabled people develop job and life skills so they could live on their own. My mom worked there, and my grandmother retired from there. Jay's mom still works there. It was hard to leave, but I did. My parents were supportive.
We're raising our own families now. Joe Don and his wife, Tiffany, take their 5-month-old boy, Jagger, on the road. Joe Don has practically installed a nursery in his bus, with a changing table, crib and everything. My oldest daughter, Brittany, is 8, and my other daughter, Brooklyn, is 4. Because we mainly tour on weekends, I'm doing the Superdad thing during the week: taking them to school and picking them up and going to all the soccer and gymnastics practices. I even had a "date" last week with Brittany. She got all dressed up, and we ate at a local Carrabba's, and then we saw "Fly Me to the Moon" in 3-D. She'll remember these dates for the rest of her life. So will I.
Go to top
Joe Don Rooney: Our life on the road
Did you know that if you slap a tour bus really hard on the outside, it makes the same sonic sound that a starfighter from Star Wars makes when it's on warp speed? We've been touring with Taylor Swift, and, while we're night owls, she's an "early-to-bed" person. So she's trying to sleep after a show one night, and Gary slaps the side of her tour bus good and hard, and she comes out with this startled look on her face, saying, "Did you guys hear that?!" Gary then looks at her with a grin that gives him away.
"We've always found ways to have fun on the road, and we've learned a lot along the way."
We've always found ways to have fun on the road, and we've learned a lot along the way. Toby Keith caught one of our early shows and asked us to open for his 2002 tour. We saw how big a production he put on, how he'd connect with the audience by talking about America or football or anything that engaged them. Then, Kenny Chesney had us open for him in 2004. Man, I can't think of many stars who work harder than Kenny does, even when it comes to just staying in the physical shape you need to be in when touring. He works out twice a day, not once! We try to be mindful of taking care of ourselves, too, and putting in the time and preparation and professionalism needed to put on a show that audiences will remember the rest of their lives.
It's also important for us to spend "real" time with our fans. That's what our "Flatts Ride" treks are about. We'll zip in souped-up golf carts around the parking lots when the fans are tailgating and have some burgers and beers with them. It's great to find out who they are and hear their stories. One time, a guy told us he was addicted to drugs and was considering suicide, then he heard our song "I'm Movin' On." He didn't say that the song alone changed his life. But it opened his mind to the thought that he could change his life, and he did. That's the kind of thing that makes you keep going.
Cover and cover story photographs by Russ Harrington for USA WEEKEND