Fifteen years after Rascal Flatts was founded, the county power trio of guitarist Joe Don Rooney, bassist Jay DeMarcus and lead singer Gary LeVox are still finding new things to try. With Tuesday's (May 13) release of their ninth studio album Rewind, the guys looked for inspiration as far away as Southern California and as close to home as their own backyard.
"I think the process over the last year and a-half has really allowed us to work with a couple of great producers," said Rooney. "And then also ... go, 'Hey, we feel like we have enough confidence in each other to find some songs downtown on Music Row, take them to Jay's house and cut the best songs we can find.' And we'd never done that before."
That 18-month process was longer than usual for Flatts, but it allowed them to find a near-perfect balance of reinvention and reliability. Over 13 tracks (17 on the deluxe version, available only in Target stores) the musicians cover a wide swath of country music landscape -- from bro-country to danceable club beats to emotional ballads -- including their Top 10 opening salvo, "Rewind."
The three band members stopped by the CMT offices to talk about their latest contribution to the genre.
CMT.com: This is your ninth album -- which is an incredible accomplishment -- and that tells me you probably know what you do best in the studio. How important is consistency to you as a band?
DeMarcus: I think it's important to be consistent because I think our fans expect a certain level of musicality from us. And I also think it's important, with consistency, to push yourself to change, too, because music has changed quite a bit in the last few years.
LeVox: And nobody sets the bar higher on ourselves than we do, so the best song always wins. Every song that you write is one of your babies, you know? ... (But) when you live in the town where some of the greatest songwriters in the world live, sometimes you have to put your babies to bed and cut some other stuff.
You mentioned how much music has changed over the last few years, and I hear some modern sounds on Rewind. What might fans be surprised to hear that you haven't thrown in there before?
DeMarcus: Ukulele, accordion. ... I used accordion on "The Mechanic." There are little different elements here and there. I took a whole lot of time dissecting the tracks and actually ended up sitting alone one night and weeding out stuff that we had thrown on there that was just taking up space. I felt like, sonically, when we cut the sides together, it was really important to me to let the song be showcased and not be a bunch of overly-produced music. So I tried to strip away some elements and only leave what was paramount to the song.
Was it hard for you guys to let Jay take the reins as one of the producers?
LeVox: No, not at all.
DeMarcus: Gary had a camera -- like a nanny cam -- pointed at me at all times. I think he watched me on his laptop when he was at home. (laughs)
LeVox: Yeah, I had a cousin cam to make sure and see what he was doing. (laughs) No, Jay's a great producer. And when we'd get in there and when we'd spend the days together, we'd talk about what was gonna happen and what way it wanted to go, what we thought about the song, vocal ideas, that kind of stuff.
DeMarcus: And then I'd do what I wanted to anyway!
"Rewind" is one of Billboard's Top 10 country singles right now. When you first heard that song, did it immediately strike you as a Rascal Flatts song?
Rooney: When I first heard it, it did. Jay had heard it first. He put a bunch of songs on hold for us to go and cut in his house, and we were on the road, and I'll never forget it. We all went to Jay's bus to listen to songs and see what we wanted to cut the next week, and he goes, "I got one right here, and you guys need to hear this." It was just right down the middle. You can't shoot holes in it. And we listened to it and, sure enough, it was like "God, the hook's great."
There's a bunch of things in "Rewind" that just make it so easy to digest. And once we recorded everything for the album, it just felt like the right one to go with for the first single. ... I don't think any of us thought at the time it would end up being the title of the album and the title of the tour. I don't think we thought that at all. We just thought, "Here's a great song. We should take this and record it." All of the sudden, the song becomes our life for this year.
That one is really a song about a feeling. Are there some storytelling songs on the album as well?
LeVox: Yeah, there's quite a few, actually. A song called "Memphis" ... "The Mechanic." "Riot" is a great one. "Honeysuckle Lazy" is one to check out. "Payback."
I like "Payback." It's a cool, up-tempo song to lead the album with, and that's one that I was thinking about as having new sounds. It's like there's a vocal synthesizer on there.
LeVox: That's one that [rock producer] Howard Benson produced. ... We learned a lot because they do it so different out in L.A. Here, we get in there and cut as a live band, where they would probably program it first. So it was a good learning experience.
Rooney: You said that it sounds synthesized. What's amazing is that it's not. This is the first time ever that we've stacked Gary's lead vocals. And a couple of times, Jay and I are both singing with him at the same time in unison, and it sounds like one voice. It makes Gary's tone sound a little different, so that's why it sounds like it's been processed or something, but it really hasn't been. It's just some tricks of the trade that we've found out about in the last year and a-half or so.