In June, Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts did something he'd wanted to do for his entire life – see the Rolling Stones in concert when the legendary rockers came to Nashville. The evening did not disappoint.
"I sit there, and here are these guys that have been doing this for 53 years. It's amazing that no one (since Brian Jones) has passed away at this point," Rooney said. "But I look at us, this is our 15th year together and I go, 'there's more in store for us.' And that's a great thing to see, is a band like that that's still hungry and still passionate."
"The Rolling Stones have always kept themselves open to evolving, to being different, to being cutting-edge," he added. "There's something to be learned from that if you're willing to put in the time and the work and the passion, and you really care about it enough. You're going to figure it out, but you have to dive into it. You can't be scared to dive deep into it and try to keep evolving."
Rooney could speak from experience because Rascal Flatts already had put that idea of evolving and getting deeply invested in its music to work on the trio's latest album, "Rewind." The band plays Sept. 24 at the Reno Events Center.
Riding the wave
Rooney said Rascal Flatts had gone on cruise control in the preceding years, as the group continued to ride a wave of popularity that had produced a dozen chart-topping singles over eight previous albums, dating back to "These Days" from the group's second album, 2002's "Melt." Between touring and the obligations that came with the group members Rooney, Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus starting families, they left some tasks in the album-making process to others and tried to limit the time spent in the studio.
"I think that we were quick to hand it off to whoever was producing the album or to an executive who was more involved with the project," Rooney said. "We were touring so much that we weren't able to really dedicate the time needed to be the best collectively and individually we could all be for the projects at hand."
But going into "Rewind," guitarist/singer Rooney, lead singer LeVox and bassist/keyboardist/singer DeMarcus realized they needed to rededicate themselves to their music and freshen up the Rascal Flatts sound.
"I think with the 'Rewind' album we were at a place where, you know what, we've been doing this a long time," Rooney said. "What are we going to do? What are we going to say that we haven't said already?"
That mission began with the songs themselves. While Rooney, LeVox and DeMarcus have always written songs for their albums, they've also looked to outside writers for material. For "Rewind," the group turned that idea on its ear.
"We would say with this new project 'Play us three songs you don't think Rascal Flatts would cut,'" Rooney said. "And that was what was really cool because they'd be like 'Hold on a second. Let me get three different songs real quick,' and they would grab something they never dreamed we would cut. And I'll tell you what, we would leave there with at least one song out of three or four and would be like 'This is so different. We've got to do this. This is unbelievable.'"
Injection of youthful energy
This request for envelope-pushing songs also exposed Rascal Flatts to a different crop of songwriters that helped inject some youthful energy into "Rewind" that had been lacking on recent albums.
"(We) started noticing there's a young crop of writers that have moved to Nashville over the course of the past three or four years that are really lighting up Nashville," Rooney said. "We started hearing these different kinds of songs and written from a whole different mind and perspective. It just sounded different."
Rooney acknowledged that country trends also figured into the trio's choice of songs for "Rewind." Radio has gone "bro-country," moving toward a more rocking, modern and male-oriented sound that might not be as keen on the kind of acoustic-laced ballads and mid-tempo material that had taken Rascal Flatts to the top of the charts.
The album opens with the song that sounds like the biggest attempt to fit with today's country, "Payback." With its banging hip-hop beat and rhythmic vocals, it's a real departure from the Rascal Flatts sound. Interestingly, "Payback" failed to crack the top 20 when it was released as a single. The song that did better both at radio and in fusing country and pop was the title track, which went top five. "Rewind" combines the rootsy, harmony-laden sound familiar to Rascal Flatts fans with a signature guitar lick and melody that puts some pop into this mid-tempo song.
The evolution of Rascal Flatts is also extending to the live stage. Before doing a residency in Las Vegas this past spring, the group made some significant changes for the live show, dismissing some long-time players from their touring band.
"We knew we needed to change the show a little bit, bring in some fresh blood and give the fans something a little different," Rooney said. "So we brought in a few new cats that are amazing players. We brought in three female background singers that add such a nice dimension to our songs, to the hits we've had and that we do every single night on stage.
"It's kind of refreshed Jay's, Gary's and myself approach to the live show as well. We dialed back the (visual) production just a little bit, to make it somewhat more intimate. I think pound for pound, show for show, and tour for tour, I think this might be one of the best tours we've put together musically and production wise."