Their three-record catalog has sold more than seven million copies; a buncha three-letter-acronymed organizations (all of which share the letters C and M) agree that they were the vocal group of the year in 2003, 2004 and 2005: their fan club and street team are six digits deep; and they just can’t seem to keep from breaking attendance records at stadium shows. Oh, and two of them are from Columbus.
Rascal Flatts, one of contemporary country music’s most successful acts, is probably the product of a backyard, family barbeque in Columbus sometime in the 1980s. Cousins Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus had likely finished up some ribs or burgers, grabbed the acoustic guitars and begun one of their frequent family jam sessions, when it clicked in either one or both of their minds that they could (and probably should) play music for a living. Jay blazed the trail to Nashville in 1992, where he landed a record deal with a Christian band called East to West and spent a number of years, and countless miles in the back of a van, bringing his music to people. He was the quintessential dedicated and struggling musician. Then, in 1997, Jay finally convinced Gary to leave his job at the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and give music a try in Nashville.
About the same time Gary moved to Nashville, Jay got a job in Chely Wright’s band, along with a very talented Oklahoman named Joe Don Rooney. Jay and Gary wrote relentlessly, and rehearsed their harmonies until they were frog’s-ass tight. They had a regular gig at a Printer’s Alley club that they worked with a part-time axman. But, as part-timers are known to do, the cat flaked, so Jay asked Joe Don to sit in. It was a three-measures-into-the-first-song-we-knew kinda thing that led to killer demos and a deal with Lyric Street records. Rascal Flatts was ready to take over the world.
They did a pretty good job of that. They used their innate abilities to create beautiful harmonies and their own brand of extremely approachable, heartfelt, poppy, heartstringy country music. They’re the songs Trace Adkins is talking about in “Songs About Me” – songs that millions of people can identify with – songs about love, family, heartbreak, joy, loss, love and family. They are very pretty, catchy songs, which spotlight Jay, Gary and Joe Don’s almost superhuman abilities to harmonize and play instruments at the same time.
A whirlwind and a record or two put Rascal Flatts at the top of the country charts every time they’d come out with something new. They’ve played the Grand Ol’ Opry, were invited to perform for the president and asked to be spokesmen for the American Red Cross. None of them could possibly have any room left on the walls for all the shiny metal records, nor could there be any surfaces left in any of their homes for the placement of awards, since everything they touch turns gold, then platinum and those abbreviated institutions keep giving them statuettes. Rascal Flatts is inarguably one of the biggest things in music today, and they’re our homies.
The Flatts are currently touring in support of their number-one single “Fast Cars and Freedom”, which will bring them home to Columbus, at Crew Stadium, on August 14th. We had a chance to talk to Jay DeMarcus, but Gary LeVox was fighting something off and needed to save his voice (if you’ve heard the Flatts, you know how important that is. If you haven’t, you’ll understand by the end of the first chorus – once you do listen to them.), so he just nodded in agreement with everything Jay said (we assume… we were on the phone).
An Ohio State of Mind
Since a full two-thirds of the band is from Ohio, we thought it might be a good idea to start with a couple of Buckeye-state-specific questions.
What key do y’all play “Hang on Sloopy” in?
We haven’t played that in a while, but we’ll pull it out every once in a while. I think Joe Don, being a Sooner, has a little trouble playing that.
If you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band. What instrument do you gotta have in the band if you’re gonna play in Ohio?
You gotta have guitar. It’s a rockin’ town. If you’re gonna play the Newport you gotta have guitar.
Does it ever bother you and Gary that Joe Don has a much more country name than you two?
Yeah, we figured if we were gonna do country music, we needed a guy with two first names. Plus, he’s from Oklahoma…
It’s All Relative
Jay and Gary are cousins, so they’ve known each other their whole lives. Combine that with the long, down-time hours spent traveling in a tour bus, and it’s a fair bet that Jay and Gary know each other about as well as anyone can know another person. So we sought to exploit that in the tabloid section of the interview. Unfortunately, there’s no dirt. These guys still dig hanging out with each other.
What is it about Gary that really drives you crazy?
There’s not a lot about Gary that really drives me crazy. He is sorta, like a neat-freak. Y’know, you can’t leave a bottle of water or something sitting on the table, in the bus, because, if you walk away from it for like a minute, it’s gone, in the trash.
What do you guys travel in?
We got a Prevost (A top-of-the-line, Canadian-manufactured tour bus)
The side pop out?
Just one side pops out. I love it, man. If you’re gonna travel on a bus, that’s the only way to do it.
Did y’all ever tour in a van?
Boy, I did, in my college years, but we were lucky enough with the Flatts to not have to do that. I definitely played the part of the starving musician longer than the other two. I can tell you that… I laid the groundwork.
So, you lord that over Gary all the time, huh?
NO! No. I was just happy to have him come, and for us to be able to make music together.
Just How Country Are the Flatts?
Our attempt at instigating a family feud of People Magazine proportions was thwarted by Jay’s obvious and genuine joy to be playing with his cousin. So, instead, we decided to dig deep into country music lore and see how Rascal Flatts fits into the lexicon of American Country Music Mythology. Our dedicated and talented squad of interns combed tome upon tome, for hour upon hour to come up with a few questions that adequately capture the essence of all things Country.
You know the joke about playing a country song backwards, where you get your car back, your dog back and your girl back. What do you get if you play a Rascal Flatts song backwards?
If you play a Rascal Flatts song backward, the broken road becomes all one piece. It becomes a smoothly-paved, finely-tuned highway.
Do you think the Devil deserves a re-match with Johnny? That band of Demons was pretty tight…
I don’t know, man, once you get your ass kicked, it’s kinda all over.
Laying a golden fiddle on the ground at someone’s feet is pretty much conceding defeat, then?
Yeah. And I don’t know that you’d want to come back with your tail tucked between your legs, asking for a re-match… “Can I get my gold fiddle back, please?”
David Allan Coe’s recipe for a perfect country song says you gotta mention momma, trucks, trains, prison and getting drunk. What is Rascal Flatts’ recipe for the perfect country song?
We’d have to put the Coors Light in there, for sure (C learned that Rascal Flatts are contractually compelled to put Coors Light in any recipe for anything, due to a sponsorship arrangement)… and golf clubs.
Have you ever slept with your boots on?
Yeah, I’ve slept with my boots on, when I’ve been camping.
Tipped a cow?
Yeah, that was in Tennessee. I can’t tell you where, ‘cause they’ll come hunt me down.
Do you know what it is about a pick-up man that women love?
Yeah, well I’d say there’s several things: first of all – no back seat, so you can just pile in, right on top of each other, and there’s the tailgate - that’s always good to flip down and have a case of beer on the back of it, and it’s a great place for a party, man. You can squeeze ten to fifteen people back there.
Does beer taste any better with a tear in it?
Beer can taste different, depending on how you feel, and sometimes, if there’s a tear in it, it does taste better.
There don’t seem to be any pictures of y’all in cowboy hats?!?
That’s because we’re not cowboys. Y’know. I think that so many people have this stigma about country music that you have to wear cowboy hats and wranglers. I’ve always said country is a state of mind, not how you dress.
Flatt Land Ahead
Jay scored in the ninety-fifth percentile of our hyper-researched and statistically-irreproachable Country quotient quiz, thanks in no small part to that last remark about Country being a state of mind. It’s hard to argue with a well-reasoned and water-tight argument like that.
It’s also hard to argue with the fact that Rascal Flatts, with “Fast Cars and Freedom”, has had the number one single on the Country charts for the last month, and that Feels Like Today, the album on which one can find “Fast Cars”, is the best selling Country record of 2005. So, not only are Jay and Rascal Flatts country, but they are so country that they are actually helping to define what country is these days. It’s a state of mind.
For Jay, that state of mind seemed palpably positive, like he is grateful for his fortunate station in life and eager to share the joy with everyone. So, expecting unabashedly honest and positive answers, we thought we’d finish with a couple of questions that address the country state of mind specific to Rascal Flatts.
What does today feel like?
Today feels like a wonderful, beautiful, peaceful day, and I have nothing to complain about.
If Rascal Flatts were a place, what kind of place would it be?
I think it would be a big farm, where everybody could come hang out and play music all day and all night, hang out and drink and have a big party and leave whenever you want to.
It doesn’t sound like a place that anyone would ever want to leave, but we’re sure that Jay and the Flatts wouldn’t have any problem with us all just hanging around forever, either. As long as there’s music and a party and a Country state of mind, everyone is welcome in Rascal Flatts (the place).
Rascal Flatts (the band) brings joy to millions of people every day, with rapier-sharp harmonies, and songs that lots of people relate to. That is no small accomplishment. So, get on down to Crew Stadium on the 14th and help the thousands of others there tell Jay and Gary that Columbus is proud of them.