If life is a highway, Rascal Flatts want to ride it forever. Throughout the 2000s, the guys have proven themselves as one of country music’s most consistent ticket-sellers. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a winning streak stretching from their 2002 debut single, “Prayin’ for Daylight,” to their current Top 10 hit, “Here Comes Goodbye.”
“We’re a live band,” guitarist Joe Don Rooney asserts. “When Gary [LeVox] honks down live and sings with all that gusto, we definitely rise to the occasion and play a little harder.”
During a recent visit to CMT, bandmate Jay DeMarcus joined Rooney and LeVox in explaining their emotional connection to the music on their just-released album, Unstoppable, as well as the gratitude they feel to fans of all ages.
CMT: “Here Comes Goodbye” is a very dramatic song. What was going through your head when you first heard that song?
Rooney: We always look for a song that’s unique. That one came across the table, and for us, it was really wonderful. It had everything that Rascal Flatts is all about. It had the big chorus. It had a really unique melody and a killer hook. We just knew that Gary would sing the dog out of it, no doubt about it. The demo was just a piano and a vocal. I had always heard it like that, as well. I think Jay and our producer, Dann Huff, were like, “Let’s cut this thing with a big band. Let’s make this thing as big as it can be.” I’m glad they had the idea because it’s become this behemoth of a song. Once it’s over, you’re wringing yourself out. That’s what we want. That’s the big thing we want on the big side of songs we cut. We’re just lucky to have that one. It’s one of the first songs we put on hold for the project.
You have a lot of songs about empowerment, including “Unstoppable.” Jay, I wanted to ask what you remember most about writing that song.
DeMarcus: Hillary Lindsey and I had had a melody that we had been working on for almost two years. James Slater came over and joined us one afternoon and had this title, “Unstoppable.” As soon as we heard that title, it spilled out of us. It was like a no-brainer right there. The power of love — you can sit and write all day about it. I think we had to edit a lot of our thoughts because when you think about the ability of love being unstoppable, and all that love can do when everything else fails, even when you’re at your lowest point — I think that was the message that we want to get across. At the end of the day when all is said and done and everything goes to hell in a handbasket, you know that love will be there to pick you back up. That was kind of a cool thought. We had never approached it from that angle before. We sing about love a lot but never had approached it from that particular angle.
I wanted to ask you about the song, “Why,” and the line about leaving the stage in the middle of the song. What is it about that imagery that really spoke to you?
DeMarcus: That song, in particular, was a really tough one to cut because all of our lives have been affected by suicide. Gary and I had in uncle in 2001 that took his own life. … We were very, very close to him, and we were affected by that greatly. We played music with him a lot and grew up with him. Joe Don, as well, had a friend in high school that took his own life. So I think that for us that song hit really close to home and dealt with a lot of emotions that we’d been feeling — and dealt with it in a way that was so delicately put. We felt like it was something that we could sing about, dealing with a very difficult matter that a lot of lives are affected by. It could give you a little bit of hope and a little way to deal with a tragic situation.
Rooney: It’s a story that you get in your mind as you hear the lyrics. My friend who committed suicide was 17, the summer before senior year. That second verse — “In my mind, I keep you frozen like a 17-year-old” — it’s eerie to me and it’s haunting. At the same time, it’s a poignant message for the youth out there, for the teenagers out there, struggling and contemplating that decision, which they shouldn’t make. That’s why this song’s got a lot of angst in it because it wants to let that [message] out of the bag — that’s not the answer. You don’t have to do that. There’s so much more in your life to live for. There are so many more people in your life that are going to be affected by a decision like that. That’s why I do love that song.
When I go to your shows, I always see a lot of kids in the audience. Why is it such a reward for you to see the younger kids at your shows?
LeVox: We were that age when country music was introduced to us. That was our roots. I think that the greatest reward is when we hear from parents — there’s mom, dad, teenagers, all the way down to little kids — and they’re saying, “You know, I’d never go to a Snoop Dog concert with my son.” Our reward is when they say, “I never thought that we would be going to a concert together as a family.” It’s great that our music appeals to all ages and the lyrics are so universal that even a 5-year-old can get them. And most of the time, me being a father, too, it’s usually the cadence of our song — da da DAH, da da DAH, da da DAH. Of course, for “Life Is a Highway,” most kids who are 5 and 6 think we wrote that. (laughs)