It was one of the overlooked musical revolutions of the decade just passed: the migration of rock and pop fans into the world of country music.
It wasn’t a phenomenon Rascal Flatts necessarily set out to ignite — and indeed, the embers had already been well stoked by acts such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.
But there’s no denying the colorful country trio became one of the leading torchbearers for the new-millennium movement, which took full flight via the band’s buoyant concerts, radio-friendly repertoire and songs indebted more to ‘80s rock than to Nashville’s heritage. And the group helped open the floodgates for a country world that now serves as a kind of pop-rock surrogate, serving up acts such as Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band and allowing the likes of Kid Rock to comfortably operate with feet in both genres.
Now, guitarist Joe Don Rooney, vocalist-guitarist Gary LeVox and bassist Jay DeMarcus are winding down a lengthy tour for last year’s platinum “Unstoppable” album.
Amid rock’s post-Nirvana growl and pop’s hip-hop infusion, Rascal Flatts became one of the prime conduits for young fans who were disenchanted with mainstream music — and who found relief by moving their dials to country radio.
They were lured by the likes of Flatts and their fellow travelers: makers of catchy, guitar-driven music just touched with twang. It was like classic Top 40 with a country tint, and for millions of listeners, that was enough to hit the spot. For Rascal Flatts, it was enough to hit the No. 1 mark on Billboard’s country chart 10 times, including the latest tear-tugging single, “Here Comes Goodbye.”
“I think it has to do with cutting songs that hit people in the heart,” says Rooney. “Gary LeVox’s voice has this really striking way of affecting people. If he feels a song, you can’t help but feel it. Not many singers have that ability. And I think our harmonies together are really pleasing to people.
“We’ve always tried to cut songs that are fun — upbeat party songs that take your minds off things — but we’re lucky to have songs along the way that affect people in that deep way.”
When those fans made their way to Rascal Flatts’ early shows, they found sets laced with Def Leppard cover songs and Beatles tributes, with a high-spirited production that took its cues from pop spectaculars.
Rooney will be the first to acknowledge that the group has taken stick for its stagecraft.
“Especially in country music, it’s not always accepted that we have the crazy laser lights, confetti out of a can, all that,” says the 34-year-old. “But we’ve always tried to be different with our shows. We take pride in it, and that’s helped contribute to the success we’ve had.”
This tour is a bit scaled back from previous Flatts jaunts: With six albums’ worth of material to fit in — and a drive to dampen ticket costs — the band has trimmed some of the pyro and lights frills. (Face values range from $24.75 to $75.)
“We wanted to get the price to a place where people, in this economy, could still afford a ticket for themselves and their family,” says Rooney. “Whenever you put production into a live show, it’s going to affect ticket costs. That’s just the way it is. So we tried to scale back a little but still have a nice explosive set.”
All the sizzle will return this summer, when the band kicks off a 10th anniversary tour that Rooney vows will be “a special one that’s a little more theatrical, more about bringing fans in to be part of the show.”
And it will be prelude to a new album already penciled in for September release, which will start coming together when Rascal Flatts hits the studio next week. While the band continues to hone its own songwriting, Rooney expects the yet-untitled disc to be like the band’s six prior albums, largely composed of outsiders’ songs.
Rooney isn’t exaggerating when he says the band typically listens to more than 1,000 songs as it prepares for a project, quickly winnowing down to the dozen or so tunes that will make the cut.
“A lot of them you can tell by the first verse, the first chorus, that they’re not for us,” he says. “It’s about the whole ball of wax — it’s got to be different, give you chills like a good movie. It’s simple for us: We have a filter in our bodies, and when we listen to a song, we know if it’s right. We stick to our principles and our rules, and do it how we want to do it, and it seems to work.”
Rooney figures the coming tour won’t just celebrate the past. It will welcome the future. Rascal Flatts has fashioned an approach built for the long haul, he says, down to the group’s day-to-day interactions.
“We know what buttons not to push, so we don’t push ‘em. We try not to push ‘em,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like every marriage — not every day is perfect. But we’ve done a truly good job of putting each other first. There has to be an underlying humility there, and we understand that. That’s what has kept us together: We really do love and look out for each other, and that’s the foundation.”