Ten years into their career, Rascal Flatts are starting fresh with a new record label and a desire to get back to their roots. While telling CMT Insider host Katie Cook about their new album, Nothing Like This, Jay DeMarcus emphasized the group’s goal of reconnecting to their early sound. The album will be released Tuesday (Nov. 16).
“For us, it was more of a refocusing on our vocal blend and the songs, instead of the bombastic production and trying to capture a lot of that high-energy stuff,” he said. “We concentrated on finding the best songs we could, stripping the production down a little bit and going back to what brought us to the dance — and that’s the uncanny blend that we have when we sing together. It was very important for us this time to hearken back to some of that while trying to grow and stretch at the same time. It’s a fine line to walk.”
In the CMT Insider interview, DeMarcus and bandmates Gary LeVox and Joe Don Rooney talk about moving to Big Machine Records after Disney’s decision to close Lyric Street Records, collaborating with British pop star Natasha Bedingfield on the new album, celebrating the Rascal Flatts Surgery Center at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville and keeping up with the loyal fans that grew up with their music.
CMT: Jay, for the new album, I’ve heard you say you kind of reached back to what got you guys started creatively but moved forward at the same time. Can you kind of elaborate on that?
DeMarcus: I think it was such a big deal for us when we started working with Dann Huff [as a producer in the mid-2000s] to capture what we did in our live show. We really concentrated on the energy and capturing the essence of Joe Don’s guitar playing and my bass playing. That was a focal point of Me and My Gang and Still Feels Good, the first couple of records we did with Dann. I think as time went on and we showed some growth there, we started to go, “You know what? There were some great elements about the first three records that we had. We had really great songs that got us to the point to where we are now.”
Nothing Like This is your first record for Big Machine, and I’m sure fans are just happy to know that you’ve got new music coming out. They may not care about the difference between labels, but it can be a really big deal for an artist to have a new label.
DeMarcus: It’s a really big deal for an artist. Of course, we were with Lyric Street for 10 years, and a bunch of those people ended up being our family and our friends as well. So we’ve got a lot of history there. They were awesome to us, and that partnership was so great. When they closed, it was a surprise to us, as well. Everybody was calling, saying, “Did you see this coming?” Of course we didn’t. It was a really big shock to the system. [Big Machine president] Scott Borchetta approached us about being in business with us. We’ve got to really tip our hats to Lyric Street and the folks at Disney for even allowing us to talk to Scott Borchetta because we were still under contract for one more record with them. So they’ve made it very easy between Scott’s attorneys and the attorneys at Disney to facilitate that partnership happening the way that it did. It was really a wonderful thing and something very unprecedented for two labels to negotiate that kind of a merger. So we’re very thrilled and grateful.
I’m sure at some point you’re thinking the future is uncertain. Did that change the way you approached making the album or the songs you picked?
Rooney: It really did not change our approach to finishing the album. We knew we had to get a piece of product done because we had a tour that was coming out. We had tickets being sold. It’s like, “Well, guys, we gotta get this thing done.” Like Jay was saying, Scott Borchetta was just great. He jumped on it, and the transition went as painless as possible, truly. We were able to get a first single out there, have a project finished and here we are.
Tell us how the pairing with Natasha Bedingfield came about.
Rooney: We got the song, “Easy,” pitched to us, and actually [the demo] wasn’t even a duet. We heard it maybe being a duet. We had the writers of the song redo it as a duet, so we had a male vocal and a female vocal. And then we got it, it made sense, and we wanted to find a female singer. One of the first people we thought of outside of the genre of country was Natasha Bedingfield. Just because she can sing, she’s got the chops, and we thought she and Gary would sound great together. She came in this past February and recorded the song with us, and it’s just … it’s magic.
LeVox: She was a big fan of “Bless the Broken Road.” That’s how the whole thing came about. She was a big, big fan of that song.
DeMarcus: And a big fan of Gary’s. … There are great singers in this genre, no doubt about it, but very few people that can hang with Gary’s vocal chops the way that she could. So it was neat to see them riffing back and forth and being in the booth together.
You have raised $3 million for Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, and they have now named the pediatric surgery center after you. That must be a pretty emotional thing.
LeVox: It was an emotional day. It’s emotional any time you walk in there because it’s such a magical place and a place of hope. It’s a gift to our community, it really is. … For the last six years, it’s been something we’ve really put our heart and soul into. We love the place over there — the kids, the staff, the doctors, everything. So to be honored like we were and to be humbled enough to have the Rascal Flatts Surgery Center opened, you just can’t put it into words. That’s probably our biggest accomplishment to date. Every child that comes in there that needs surgery actually will have their surgery performed.
Rooney: That’s the key that makes it so special. We don’t turn anyone away.
Every year, you guys go in there and you hang out, you perform, you take pictures with everybody. Does it get any easier?
DeMarcus: I don’t think it gets easier. It’s always tough, but to know you can provide a moment in their stay that puts a smile on their face or just give them a little ray of hope, I think it’s the most important thing we do all year long. We love touring. We love being in front of the fans. That’s all great, but when I go there, as gut-wrenching as it can be and very emotionally draining as it can be, it makes everything we do worthwhile. What’s amazing for me is to think about the fact that we didn’t start out for it to become what it has become. It’s such a true testament to the whole city of Nashville and how everybody rallied around our cause and our belief in what they were doing at Vanderbilt, from the charity dinners that we have, to the concerts and all the proceeds going to Vanderbilt. This is their charity, and that’s the thing that I can’t stress enough. This is about the entire city of Nashville and a testament to their giving, as well, because some wonderful people believed in what we were doing and helped us make it a success.
What would you say was maybe the biggest surprise of the last 10 years?
LeVox: Having a surgery center open up in our name … You just can’t dream that big. It was a wonderful day and the stories, every time we walk in and the things that we do, it’s just so funny how our lives are changed every time we walk in there. We leave with friends.
DeMarcus: I’m surprised at the loyalty of the country music fan. People that started out with us at “Prayin’ for Daylight” still come to multiple shows a year. People who were 10 — 10 years ago — are now 20, and they’re starting to have families and their kids are growing up with Rascal Flatts’ music. That is really, really something that is overwhelming when I think about the fan base that we’ve had and how incredibly generous they’ve been to us over the years and how faithful they’ve been over the years.