As styles of country music have changed in the past two decades, Rascal Flatts has also changed with the times. But now, the group is getting back to the vocal blend that made the trio stars in the first place.

“I think we got back the passion we had on the first one,” said Gary LeVox in a recent interview in Rolling Stone about the band’s new album, “Back to Us.” “Just really focusing on harmonies like they were on the first album – kind of in your face. The vocal part of what we do is really what put us on the map in the first place.”

Rascal Flatts will bring those vocals to fans on July 15 at the Peppermill Hotel Resort. This particular tour is being billed as “Up Close and Personal,” as the country trio play more intimate venues then their usual arenas to go through their music in an acoustic format.

The group does really like touring according to recent interviews. “We’re road dogs,” member Joe Don Rooney said. “We grew up playing music them in Ohio, and myself in Oklahoma to live this crazy dream. I think that we practically live on the road, but with the family life, I think there’s a beautiful balance of being able to tour -- and then come back home.”

Early days

Rascal Flatts’ roots begin in Columbus, Ohio. LeVox and Jay DeMarcus are cousins and played music together at extended family get-togethers in Ohio. DeMarcus eventually found his way to Nashville as part of a Christian group called East to West in 1992 and LeVox joined him to work with singer Michael English’s band.

DeMarcus was pretty busy in his early Nashville days. His leadership of singer Chely Wright’s band also led him to Rooney, who was the group’s guitarist. At a nightclub show for the LeVox-DeMarcus duo, Rooney joined them and Rascal Flatts was truly on its way. DeMarcus told Billboard magazine recently that those nightclub beginnings still are where the band learned to be entertainers.

“That’s where we found our footing, honed our craft,” DeMarcus said. “There’s so much more to it than just standing up there and delivering the songs. I think that anybody can go home, put the record on, and listen to it note for note, but there’s very little entertainment value in that, I believe. When you give people something visually entertaining to watch along with presenting the music, I feel it makes it a lot more interesting.

“I love every aspect of live performance and putting our shows together, and approaching it from the standpoint of ‘What would we want to see if we were a fan sitting in the audience?’”

That entertainment value was extended into the studio work of the band. After finishing a demo of songs, the band heard from the leaders of Lyric Street Records, an offshoot of the Disney company. The label signed the group and released their self-titled debut in 2000. There ended up being four top 10 country songs on that album, including two – “Prayin’ for Daylight” and “I’m Movin’ On” – that also made the pop top 40 charts.

A follow-up album in 2002, called “Melt,” yielded two country No. 1 hits, “Mayberry” and “These Days.” The band’s biggest commercial streak was right after this, when they reached several milestones, including six country No. 1 songs in three years: “Bless the Broken Road,” “Fast Cars and Freedom,” “What Hurts the Most,” “My Wish,” “Take Me There” and “Stand.” The three albums in this era also sold between 4 and 5 million copies.

While “What Hurts the Most” was the band’s first pop top 10 hit, its second was a song that didn’t even make the top 10 on the country charts. Yet, Rascal Flatts’ cover of Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” (on the soundtrack to the animated movie “Cars”) in 2006 is one of the band’s best known mainstream songs.

Getting back to it

Hit albums and tours continued for Rascal Flatts at the end of the 2000s and well into this decade, even after a move to indie label Big Machine Records. The group’s other No. 1 country hits include “Here”, “Here Comes Goodbye,” “Why Wait” and “Banjo.” The group’s latest album, “Back to Us,” hit No. 2 on the country albums chart.

“The album is perfectly titled because we came to the realization not too long ago that we’re okay with who we are,” DeMarcus told Billboard magazine recently about the new album. “It’s OK to be us. People fell in love with us for a reason, and we tried to identify what those reasons were, capitalize on them, and highlight them on this record.”

Rooney told in a recent interview that the only requirements for the new record were great songs and having fun.

“It’s really an open landscape with this project, and country music right now is so open,” he said. “It’s awesome how broad it is from Chris Stapleton’s style and sound — the rugged bluesy kind of country — to all the way to as pop as it gets. To have all that to work with, it just gave us some credence to just go there musically.”

One thing the band did try to seek out, though, was lyrics that really resonated with them, and may have even bucked recent trends.

“I think that the writing in Nashville,” LeVox said to, “every song was about cold beer, a tailgate, a cooler and it was almost like it was kind of a fad. That’s fun, and it worked. And I think it brought a lot of people into country music that might not have listened. But you get a lot of that stuff pitched to you, and you want to say something different. And I even found myself doing the same thing, writing in that way.

“But it’s nice to see writers writing stuff that truly is what put country music on the map and that are amazing real life stories being said in clever ways differently than they’ve been said before.”

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