Country music group
Group formed c. 1999 in Nashville, TN; members include Jay DeMarcus (born April 26, 1971, in Columbus, OH; married, 2004), vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, mandolin; Gary LeVox (born July 10, 1970, in Columbus, OH; married; children: Brittany, Brooklyn), lead vocals; Joe Don Rooney (born Sept. 13, 1975, in Picher, OK; married Tiffany Fallon, April 23, 2006), vocals, guitar.
Addresses: Record company—Lyric Street, 1100 Demonbreun St., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. Website—http://www.rascalflatts.com.
DeMarcus was a member of the band East to West, early 1990s; DeMarcus and Rooney were members of Chely Wright's touring band, 1990s; formed Rascal Flatts, c. 1999; released debut album, Rascal Flatts, 2000; released Melt, 2002; released Feels Like Today, 2004; released Me and My Gang, 2006.
Awards: New vocal group of the year, Academy of Country Music, 2001; vocal group of the year, Country Music Association, 2003; vocal group of the year, Academy of Country Music, 2003, 2004 and 2005; vocal group of the year, Country Music Association, 2004; vocal group of the year, Academy of Country Music, 2004; breakthrough act, Billboard Touring Awards, 2005; vocal group of the year, Country Music Association, 2005; vocal group of the year, Academy of Country Music, 2005; country artist of the year, Billboard, 2005; Grammy Award for country song of the year, Recording Academy, for "Bless the Broken Road," 2006.
In April of 2006, Chris Willman of Entertainment Weekly declared that Rascal Flatts was "America's most popular band." The young country music trio certainly had the record sales to claim that title. All 13 of its singles had hit the top ten on the Billboard county chart, and five had gone to No. 1. By the summer of 2006, the group, known for its heartfelt, emotional songs and three-part harmonies, had sold almost nine million records and was one of the top-grossing touring bands in the United States. Never accepted by their more traditional country music peers, the band still struggled to defy the label the press placed on them when they debuted in 2000: that they were the country equivalent of a boy band.
Rascal Flatts began as a family affair. Jay DeMarcus and Gary LeVox are second cousins who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and used to sing and play together at family get-togethers. DeMarcus' parents were full-time musicians in Columbus. In the early 1990s, DeMarcus joined the Christian band East to West and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue a music career. There, he got a job leading the backup band of contemporary country singer Chely Wright.
In 1997, DeMarcus convinced his cousin to join him in Nashville. When DeMarcus was not on the road, he, LeVox and a guitarist performed together regularly at a Nashville country-music club called the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar. One night, when their regular guitarist could not play, DeMarcus invited Joe Don Rooney, his bandmate in Wright's touring group, to sit in. The three men quickly discovered their voices formed natural three-part harmonies. "Gary is such a great singer, and Joe Don naturally sings the high part over Gary," their co-manager, Doug Nichols, told Ken Tucker of Billboard. "It's naturally where his voice is. Jay sings the fifth below, which is naturally where his voice is. You can't go find three people like that."
The trio sent a well-produced, market-ready three-song demo to Lyric Street Records, which signed them in the summer of 1999. The record company moved quickly to record and release the band's first album. The band and their producers were good at delivering catchy songs, and the label was afraid that, after word of the signing spread, other male country trios might appear quickly and debut first. By early in 2000, Rascal Flatts was visiting country radio stations, singing and trying to get airplay for the first album. The self-titled album spawned four singles that broke onto country radio, "Prayin' for Daylight" and "This Everyday Love" (which were both on their original demo), "While You Loved Me," and "I'm Movin' On." The latter, considered a risky single to release because it was a ballad, touched a nerve with listeners. "We got letters and still receive e-mails on that song, how it's changed people's lives and [helped them] get over alcohol and depression," Rooney told Billboard's Tucker. "It's wonderful to know that your music can be a healer like that."
The singles quickly hit the country chart. But neither music critics nor country traditionalists welcomed the band warmly. Rascal Flatts became tagged as a country version of a boy band, a young pop group singing light songs for women. "Rascal Flatts first hit in the spring of 2000, just as pop's boy-band craze started to wane—even though some country labels were still trying to cash in on the fad," explained Brian Mansfield of USA Today. "Rascal Flatts—with clean-cut looks, showy vocals and pop-influenced arrangements—quickly found fans, as well as detractors willing to lump them with the boy-band knockoffs." For some country fans, the lead singer's voice may have been part of the problem. "LeVox's singing style didn't hark back to any traditional country archetypes," Mansfield wrote. "It was an unusual combination of nasal, bluegrass-bred tone and phrasing patterned after R&B singers such as Stevie Wonder and Peabo Bryson." The band and their record company tried to counter the boy band label by offering a live concert show to the country-music cable station CMT. The special, "Rascal Flatts: Live From the Sunset Strip," showed off their abilities as musicians and started an ongoing relationship with CMT that has been fruitful for the band. In an unusual move, the band has even released videos for album tracks that were never released as singles, as a way to boost album sales.
Melt, Rascal Flatts' second album, was released in 2002. The band promoted it by headlining a tour sponsored by CMT. One single from the album, "These Days," hit No. 1 on the country chart. A reviewer for Billboard pronounced Melt better than the band's debut, thanks to stronger song quality, good arrangements and impressive harmonies. The band's steamy video for another single, "I Melt," attracted notoriety and publicity, since it included a brief shot of Rooney nude from behind and suggestive shots of a female model playing his girlfriend. (CMT blurred out Rooney's buttocks when it showed the video during the day.) "We wanted to get the best, classy interpretation of the song that we could possibly do," DeMarcus told Mansfield of USA Today. "It's a sexy song. It's about preparing to love on your significant other." Another successful strategy the band pursued was touring as an opening act for country stars such as Brooks & Dunn in 2002, Toby Keith in 2003, and Kenny Chesney in 2004, even after they proved capable of headlining tours on their own, and after the fall 2002 CMT tour sold out in several cities.
The band cites various influences on their sound. LeVox, the lead vocalist, mentions classic country singer George Jones as well as soul singer Stevie Wonder, while Rooney, the guitarist, cites both country guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins and rock guitarists Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. All three band members are influenced by the hugely popular country band Alabama. That loyalty may have attracted the attention of one of their heroes. "Randy Owen from Alabama grabbed me by the shoulders at the CMA Awards in New York," DeMarcus told USA Today's Mansfield. "He said, 'I'm not going to BS you, buddy. Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You're just taking over the spot we were in 20 years ago.'" Though each Rascal Flatts album has included some songs the band members wrote, they also sing many songs by other writers, a decision that often means a band gets less respect from critics. "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," LeVox told Billboard's Tucker. "Our egos aren't the ones speaking. It's our hearts."
The 2004 album Feels Like Today, like its predecessors, generated several hit singles. One, the tear-jerker "Skin (Sarabeth)," told the story of a high-school student fighting off cancer who is afraid to go to her prom since her treatments have left her bald, until her date arrives with his head shaved. Several country stations played it during telethons to raise donations for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Critics alternately described the song as powerful and over-the-top maudlin. Around this time, the band's huge popularity was increased by the hit pop-singer-audition show American Idol. Two of its country-influenced stars, Carrie Underwood and Josh Gracin, sang Rascal Flatts songs on the show. However, critical opinion was still against them.
People reviewer Ralph Novak, for instance, gave Feels Like Today only two stars. While acknowledging that the boy-band comparison was not entirely fair—all three members "are much better singers than the 'N Sync/Backstreet Boys crowd," he wrote—Novak complained that LeVox was totally unsubtle and that the band's songs had "a treacly, dispirited sameness." Darryl Morden of the Hollywood Reporter saw a Rascal Flatts show in Los Angeles in 2005 and left unimpressed. "The music falls flat," he declared. "It's country for people who don't want real country." The band's sound owed more to bland 1980s rock than classic country, Morden argued, and an encore medley of rock hits convinced him that the band was superficial. During Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," he wrote, "De-Marcus asked whether the audience was proud to be American"—not realizing, Morden noted, that "Born in the U.S.A." is a bitter song about an unemployed Vietnam veteran who feels left behind after returning from the war.
For their fourth album, Me and My Gang, instead of working with their longtime producers, Mark Bright and Marty Williams, Rascal Flatts hired veteran session guitarist Dann Huff as producer. "Sometimes in this business you can sit idle for too long, and we kind of felt like we were sitting idle," Rooney told Tucker of Billboard. "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."
Huff worked to make the new album sound more like Rascal Flatts' sound in concert. He also encouraged the band to take new musical risks. After mostly singing and not playing his guitar much on the first three albums, Rooney played all nine guitar solos on Me and My Gang, in part thanks to instruction from Huff. "He brought more out of me than I ever could have done without him," Rooney told USA Today's Mansfield.
In 2006, to support Me and My Gang, Rascal Flatts mounted another huge tour, with stops at several large amphitheaters. Of the 24 shows in the tour's first leg, 21 were sellouts. "We're really arena guys," Rooney told Ray Waddell of Billboard. "There's something about the energy that's captured in an arena setting." The band also continued to play state fairs, popular venues for country bands. One reviewer was unimpressed with the New York show on the tour, though. Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times noted that LeVox took many trips backstage and seemed to have trouble sustaining his voice for a whole song. "From the start something wasn't quite right: He would murmur a few lines, find his voice in time to deliver a few big notes, then ask the audience to fill in the gaps," Sanneh wrote. De-Marcus took over the spotlight at one point by taking over the drums to play a solo, then singing the Eagles song "Hotel California."
The band members have often spoken bitterly about the press' insistence on calling them a boy band, and their hopes of transcending that pigeonhole. To be sure, there are a few exceptions to the critical disdain. Chuck Taylor of Billboard, for one, raved about the No. 1 single "What Hurts the Most," praising its melody and calling its vocals passionate. "one of the best songs we've heard this year," he wrote. Billboard's Michael Paoletta declared that Rascal Flatts "showcase mighty chops." Yet some press still dislike them for the softness of their music. The fact that women outnumber men about 15 to 1 among Rascal Flatts concert ticket-buyers does not help them shake their reputation. Entertainment Weekly's Chris Hillman gave Me and My Gang a grade of C for a near-lack of memorable hooks. "Spectacularly wimpy," the New York Times' Sanneh called the band while reviewing the album.
In April of 2006, Rooney married a Playboy Playmate of the Year, Tiffany Fallon. The wedding took place in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, and Rascal Flatts performed at the reception. (DeMarcus' wife, whom he married in 2004, is a former Miss Tennessee. LeVox is also married, and has two daughters, Brittany and Brooklyn.) As 2006 progressed, DeMarcus produced an album by longtime classic-pop-rock stars Chicago. Rooney was pursuing a side project with a band in Los Angeles, California. The band was preparing to star in a television concert to celebrate the start of the 2006 National Football League season.
Rascal Flatts, Lyric Street, 2000.
Melt, Lyric Street, 2002.
Feels Like Today, Lyric Street, 2004.
Me and My Gang, Lyric Street, 2006.
Billboard, November 16, 2002, p. 25; August 20, 2005, p. 67; April 15, 2006, pp. 31-40, pp. 42-46, pp. 48-49; May 27, 2006, p. 49.
Daily Variety, May 23, 2006, p. A5.
Entertainment Weekly, April 21, 2006, p. 73.
Hollywood Reporter, July 12, 2005, p. 22.
New York Times, April 10, 2006, pp. E1-E6; May 29, 2006, pp. E1-E6.
People, December 9, 2002, p. 50; October 18, 2004, p. 44; May 8, 2006, p. 48, p. 189.
Rolling Stone, July 13, 2006, p. 98.
USA Today, July 14, 2003, p. 1D; April 3, 2006, p. 1D; July 12, 2006, p. 1D.
Rascal Flatts, http://www.rascalflatts.com (August 19, 2006).
"Rascal Flatts: Biography" CMT.com, http://www.cmt.com/artists/az/rascal_flatts/bio.jhtml (August 19, 2006).