Music Interviews
3:59 pm
Fri April 6, 2012

Rascal Flatts: 'Rekindling The Fire' Of Its Country Roots

Originally published on Sat April 7, 2012 11:16 am

Rascal Flatts is one of the most successful country crossover acts of the past decade. The award-winning trio has released eight studio records in 10 years and sold more than 21 million albums.

So why did the group recently consider breaking up?

"We had reached a crossroads to where we needed to dig deep to see if we, in fact, had the fire and hunger that we did when we first started out — to keep trying to forge ahead and be better than we'd been and push ourselves to be creatively energized again," bass player Jay DeMarcus says.

Singer Gary LeVox, DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney said that, after long conversations and much consideration, they decided they still had more to say. The group's new record, the aptly titled Changed, demonstrates Rascal Flatts' renewed dedication to "rekindling the fire deep down inside."

"Making this last record, it sort of felt like those early days where we were back in my little one-bedroom apartment all those years ago, making our first demo tapes," DeMarcus says.

After being billed as a pop-country act for the past few years with crossover hits like "God Bless the Broken Road" and "What Hurts the Most," Rascal Flatts' members return to their country roots on Changed.

"If people would've heard what we were doing back in the clubs in the late '90s, they would be really shocked to find out how country our sound really was back then," DeMarcus says. "The last couple of years, we've tried to be deliberate about finding things that reflected sort of where we've come from and what our early sound was."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGED")

RASCAL FLATTS: (Singing) I came up out of the water, raised my hands up to the father.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

That's a new song from the country music super group, Rascal Flatts. For the last few years, the band has been heard all over - country and pop radio - with hits that include "Blessed the Broken Road" and "What Hurts the Most." Rascal Flatts has sold more than 21 million albums. They are the top-selling and most-awarded country group of the last decade.

So why did they recently consider breaking up? It's been a time of transition for Rascal Flatts, and their new CD is titled aptly enough, "Changed."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGED")

FLATTS: (Singing) I'm changed for the better, for smiles that's bitter. I'm even starting to forgive myself...

SIMON: The group's members, singer Gary LeVox, bass player Jay DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney all joined us from our studios at NPR West.

Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

GARY LEVOX: Oh, thank you for having us.

JAY DEMARCUS: Great to be here.

SIMON: We've got a third voice we haven't heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOE DON ROONEY: I, I...

SIMON: Unless you're, you know, you're genuinely indifferent about this, and we can accept that and try and build from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROONEY: I love it. I love it. No, we're very proud and happy to be here with you.

SIMON: Gary LeVox, you wrote this title track that we just heard a few seconds of, "Changed."

LEVOX: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: What are you trying to get across in that song?

LEVOX: You know, I think a lot of times the hardest thing to do is to forgive yourself of past mistakes. The first step is admitting that you've made mistakes. It's OK to change, you know, no matter how many times you fall down you can always get back up.

SIMON: Well, help us understand what these last few years have been like for you. Because I, you know, I will warn you in advance, it's going to be hard for you to break anyone's heart, given the success you've had over the past 10 years.

DEMARCUS: This is Jay. It was just, we had reached a crossroads to where we needed to dig deep to see if we, in fact, had the fire and hunger that we did when we had first started out. After a very long day's worth of conversations it became clear to all three of us that we did have something left to say and we did have some fire deep down inside that we wanted to rekindle. And making this last record, it sort of felt like those early days to where we were back in my little one-bedroom apartment all those years ago, making our first demo tapes.

SIMON: Jay DeMarcus, could you bring us back to those days in your one-bedroom apartment? Was this in Nashville?

DEMARCUS: It was. I lived in a little one-bedroom apartment and I had an ADAT machine in there that we'd get around and sing our harmonies together. And those are some of my most favorite times because we were so hungry and so desperate to have something happen. And I quite honestly feel like the last few years we lost a little bit of that. We just sort of started phoning it in, so to speak.

SIMON: Well, you've made what, eight studio albums in 10 years?

DEMARCUS: Yes, sir.

SIMON: For a lot of people that's not even enough time to phone it in.

DEMARCUS: Well...

SIMON: That's a lot of work.

DEMARCUS: It is a lot of work. I guess what I mean by that is that when you come face-to face with something that works very well and we've been fortunate to have amazing fans, doesn't mean that it's not good. It doesn't mean that it doesn't have substance, but you can allow yourself to put it on autopilot sometimes and stop digging deeper to find different things inside of you that are creative that will inspire you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANJO")

SIMON: Let's listen to another song, "Banjo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANJO")

FLATTS: (Singing) You gotta go deep way on back. Cross a few creeks and a couple little shacks. You gotta get lost; way on out, crickets and frogs, yeah, you're gettin' close now. And you kick it into four wheel drive when you run out of road and you go, and you go and you go-go-go. Till you hear a banjo, oh, there it is.

SIMON: Is it intentional, this is your most country-sounding album in a while?

DEMARCUS: You know, the funny thing about us is we've always been derided as this pop/country band, but if people would've heard what we were doing back in the clubs in the late '90s, they would be really shocked to find out how country our sound really was back then. On the last few albums you'll find some countrier things on there than you might have five or six years ago.

SIMON: What is the name mean, Rascal Flatts?

DEMARCUS: He who singeth country influence music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEMARCUS: You know what? We were actually in that club that we used to play in Nashville, Tennessee called the Fiddle & Steel Guitar Bar. Then one night from stage we just said, hey, if anybody's got a cool idea for a band name, you know, please let us know. And a buddy of ours said man, we used to have a band back in the '60s, he said we used to call ourselves Rascal Flatts. He said by god, that, ya'll look like Rascal Flatts to me. And we said what's it mean? And he said well, I don't know, but that's just what we called ourselves, you know, and so we went with it and it's worked, I think.

SIMON: Let's listen to another song you wrote Jay DeMarcus, "Let It Hurt."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT HURT")

FLATTS: (Singing) So let it hurt, let it bleed. Let it take you right down through your knees. Let it burn to the worst degree. May not be what you want, but it's what you need. Sometimes the only way around it is to let love do it's work. So go on, yeah, let it hurt.

SIMON: Gary LeVox?

LEVOX: Yes, sir.

SIMON: Early on, how did your kind of soulful vocal interpretations go over?

LEVOX: You know, I don't know. I think, you know, being a kid - I was always affected as a child by great singers and I would try to emulate them as a kid. I remember trying to sing stuff like Peabo Bryson, Keith Whitley and Ronnie Milsap, and he would do those lyrics and Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty and all the way to Steve Wonder.

You know, but when we hit the scene, our first album came out June 6th of 2000, and I think it was fresh and I think our sound was new and we were right at the tail end of the 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys kind of thing, which we certainly weren't trying to do. We just happened to be three guys that it was a timing thing. But, you know, I think as times went on our brand of country music has opened a lot of doors for the Carrie Underwoods and the Taylor Swifts. And, you know, music evolves and we've been blessed and fortunate enough to be able to evolve with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT HURT")

FLATTS: (Singing) Yeah, let it hurt. Oh, let it hurt. 7:42 in the morning, eight seconds before it all sinks in.

SIMON: You, Rascal Flatts, recently became, I guess the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry.

ROONEY: Yeah, this is Joe Don. We sure did. Last October, one of the greatest days of Rascal Flatts' life, for sure. When I step back and think about September, though, of last year when we were asked to be the next members to join, we were blown away. It's something that's been on are radar since we were kids and wanted to move to Nashville with the dream to try to make it in the business and someday play the Opry and one day be a member of the Opry. I mean those were all wild dreams, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

ROONEY: But you have to dream big if you want to get in this dance and we always have been dreamers - all three of us.

SIMON: Give us a song to go out on, and tell us why.

DEMARCUS: This is Jay. You know, for me, I'd have to go with "A Little Home" because that song immediately touched me when I first heard the demo. You know, I've been gone - when I left for college, it's been 21 years ago now, so I've been away from home for a long time, and there were so many times that I just...

SIMON: Where's home? Forgive me for not...

DEMARCUS: Home was Columbus, Ohio. That's where I was born and raised.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

DEMARCUS: And I left home to go to school when I was 19 and I've been gone ever since. And I remember many, many nights just needing to pick the phone up and hear my mom's voice on the other end. So that song really, really hit me hard when I heard it.

SIMON: Gentlemen, it's been wonderful talking to you. Thanks so much.

LEVOX: Thank you.

DEMARCUS: Thank you. For having us. Appreciate it.

ROONEY: Thank you so much, man.

SIMON: Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts, joining us from NPR West. Their newest album, latest album, "Changed," is out now. Let's listen to a little bit of "A Little Home."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE HOME")

FLATTS: (Singing) Sometimes you just need a little home. So, hey, mom and dad, what's going on? I'm just checking in. No, there ain't nothing wrong. Sometimes you just need a little home.

SIMON: You can hear more from Rascal Flatts on our website, NPR Music.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE HOME")

FLATTS: (Singing) Sit down in the sand, shoebox in his hand, half a world away. And he smiles when he sees who it's from. He lays down his gun, no, he can't wait. The cards and letters and something sweet, he takes a bite and reads. Everybody sends their love and he tears up.

(Singing) Sometimes you just need a little home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.