For many, 2016 was a year of significant loss. Music legends including Merle Haggard, Prince, George Michael, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, among others, died last year. Many of these artists directly influenced country music’s biggest entertainers, Rascal Flatts included.
Personal loss hit close to home for Rascal Flatts, too. In a candid interview with Sounds Like Nashville, Rascal Flatts’ bassist Jay DeMarcus details a tough personal loss and collaborative loss. Their new single, “Yours If You Want It,” was written by Jonathan Singleton and the late Andrew Dorff. It is also the first song written by and released since Dorff’s unexpected death in December at the age of 40. Upon learning the news, DeMarcus said the life was sucked out of him.
“It’s been such a hard year. I lost my father-in-law right before Thanksgiving. We’ve lost so many wonderful artists in 2016, so it was just like the final straw,” he says quietly of Dorff’s passing over the phone. “Andrew was such a wonderful soul and such a gifted songwriter.”
DeMarcus says Dorff’s death was heartbreaking, but he immediately found comfort in the fact that the band had recorded his song and had already decided it would be their new single.
“I had gotten to talk with Andrew right before his passing about how much he loved our version of the track and loved what we had done with the arrangement. So, at least I knew that he was proud of what we brought to the table, as far as his song goes,” DeMarcus explains. “I was comforted and proud of the fact that, at the very least, we could be a part of, in some small way, ensuring that his legacy continues to live on.”
The song itself has received a welcomed reception from the industry as it was the most-added song to country radio just three days after its release according to Mediabase.
DeMarcus produced “Yours If You Want It” with his bandmates and said there was little to change from the demo. He envisioned a musical hook to the intro and outro of the song in the form of a guitar riff and added those ever catchy “whoa, whoa’s” to the chorus.
“It was such a great demo and Jonathan Singleton is such a great singer and he sang the demo,” DeMarcus notes. “The bones were there. We just put our Flatts stamp on it musically.”
“Yours If You Want It” includes a soaring melody and big chorus the band is known for and continues to push their sound forward. A song about a man who has been beaten up by life, he soon finds himself opening up to a woman explaining how he might be rough around the edges, but what he has left he will give wholeheartedly to her. It’s a triumphant return for Rascal Flatts and a much needed positive anthem to ring in 2017.
“Half of this rickety front porch swing, every word of every song I sing, my jacket when it’s cold … baby, it’s yours if you want it,” Rascal Flatts sing.
The first song off the band’s forthcoming 10th studio album, “Yours If You Want” is a hint of what’s to come from Rascal Flatts’ new record. DeMarcus says seven songs are already done and in early February they will head back into the studio to finish up their 2017 release, which DeMarcus has been producing by default, he says, at the studio in his house.
“We cut one track with busbee, a song that he had co-written with Gary. That track is really banging too, I love that song. It’s called ‘Hands Talk.'”
DeMarcus says it’s been a fun process making their new music and he admits that some songs will surprise listeners.
“This first single feels like familiar Flatts and covers that territory of an up tempo song. It really showcases the harmonies, but I’m excited for people to get to dig into this record and listen to some different sides of us. I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised.”
Rascal Flatts’ sound centers around the vocal blend the three singers have. DeMarcus says they strive to find material that showcases Gary LeVox’s vocal ability above all else. He admits that this task gets harder the older the band becomes because they’re constantly competing against themselves and what they’ve previously done.
“Gary’s always said, and I think it’s a great statement, ‘No one knows our music better than we do.’ We didn’t have a record label and producers and songwriters writing songs for us when we were starting out in Fiddle & Steel Guitar Bar,” DeMarcus explains. “We found our sound ourselves. At the end of the day, it started with us and it’s back to us now.”
“I believe that people will see straight through you if you do something that’s not authentic to who you are.”
The music industry has changed drastically since Rascal Flatts began playing together as a band in 1999 at the since shuttered Fiddle & Steel Guitar Bar in Nashville. It was in this former honky tonk on Printers Alley that they found and honed their sound — DeMarcus on bass guitar, Joe Don Rooney on lead guitar and Gary LeVox as the band’s frontman.
Despite being adept at playing their instruments and writing songs, some early critics described Rascal Flatts as country music’s boy band. Their first two singles “Prayin’ for Daylight” and “This Everyday Love” were released in 2000 — the height of America’s boy band craze with acts like the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and 98 Degrees seeing monumental success. DeMarcus admits the boy band comparison was frustrating but it is something he chuckles about now.
“We played instruments, so it was weird that they called us the boy band,” he reasons. “I certainly could see the correlation between what was happening in pop music at the time. I think once we got songs that had substance and had meat on the bone, it helped dispel any misconceptions people had about us being a boy band. The material spoke for itself. When people saw us live they figured out really quickly that we weren’t a boy band. So, that misconception didn’t last very long, at all.”
Career songs like ballads “I’m Movin’ On,” about finding peace with one’s self and going off on your own, “Bless the Broken Road,” detailing how life’s obstacles and heartbreaks help one find his true love, and “Skin (Sarabeth),” a heartbreaker about a teenager learning she has cancer while dreaming of dancing at her prom, helped solidify Rascal Flatts’ staying power. All released as singles between 2001-2005, these songs also helped them to shrug off the boy band moniker.
Their fourth single, “I’m Movin’ On” would go on to win Song of the Year at the ACM Awards. It’s a song that DeMarcus says gave him hope that his band would make it in country music.
“The moment for me that I knew that Rascal Flatts may have a chance to have a career was ‘I’m Movin’ On.’ We sang that song at the Grand Old Opry and that song had sold 500,000 copies, just itself,” he marvels. “When I saw the reaction from the audience when we sang it that night I remember standing on stage and freezing the moment in my brain and thinking, ‘Wow, we may have a shot to do a next record. We’re on to something here. This may work.'”
Things more than worked out for Rascal Flatts. They have become the most awarded country group over the last decade, earning over 40 trophies from the ACAs, ACMs, AMAs, CMAs and People’s Choice Awards, among others. Last year they also celebrated the major milestone of having sold 10 million tickets throughout their career.
While DeMarcus says validation from their peers and the industry helped boost their career early on in the form of awards, he doesn’t think awards matter anymore, now being an established band. However, the coveted Entertainer of the Year Award is one trophy he would love to add to his already extensive collection.
“I would love to have that award at some point, there is no doubt, but part of me feels like that ship has sailed,” he admits. “If we were going to get it, it probably would have been eight or 10 years ago. I just don’t know that it’s realistic now, anymore, with so many younger and hot acts coming up behind us. I’m still honored to be able to make a living in the business. So, while it would’ve been nice, I don’t know … It’s not critical to my happiness anymore.”
One thing that is critical to DeMarcus and bandmates LeVox and Rooney’s happiness is their families. All married for well over a decade now and with several kids each, it has been a sometimes difficult balance to juggle their career and family life. While DeMarcus’ two children have joined him on the road more now that they’ve gotten older, he says it was tough when they were really young.
“It’s so much harder to leave them the older they get because they get it. Boy, it really hurts them to watch you leave for three or four days at a time,” he says, growing quiet. “I have so much more respect now for what Gary went through in the very early stages of our career. We were gone so much more and he has older kids. He went through that ten times more than Joe Don and I have had to.”
DeMarcus took his four-year-old son, Dylan, on the road this past summer and plans to this year as well. He laughs thinking about his son’s favorite Rascal Flatts songs. Right now he loves “Life Is a Highway” thanks in part to the Cars soundtrack, as well as “Fast Cars and Freedom,” “Here’s To You” and “Rewind,” which he walks around the house singing “Bee Bind.”
So what’s his wife’s secret to being married to a full-time musician? DeMarcus laughs at the thought and says that she would probably admit that never being around each other is what makes their relationship work. He says being on the road so much makes for a healthy relationship because he appreciates the times they’re together that much more.
“The old adage is so true, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ It certainly, certainly does. I think that we would drive our wives crazy if we were around the house all the time,” he laughs. “We really don’t know any other life than the ones that we have right now. So, I think they’ve gotten used to us being gone and quite honestly sometimes they’re glad to get us out of the house because they get a lot more done without us around, for sure.”
“I think at the end of the day, we all feel like we’ve built something very, very special.”
DeMarcus, LeVox and Rooney’s love and respect for each other have helped contribute to their long lasting career as a trio. While DeMarcus says at times they do fight like brothers, they also love each other like brothers and are a tight knit family. “What we have together is greater than any individual,” he reasons.
Another attribute to their nearly two decades together is not chasing after trends and remaining who they are as artists. While it’s important to evolve and experiment, the band never risk messing with their foundation too much at the likelihood of losing their core fan base who began following them 16 years ago.
“If we looked like something else and sounded like something else, I think it would be a disservice to them. Not to mention a disservice to us and what we’ve built together,” he explains. “So, I think you have to push yourselves, try new things, experiment with new sounds and different songs, but at the end of the day, be true to who you are as an artist because I believe that people will see straight through you if you do something that’s not authentic to who you are.”
Rascal Flatts’ long career has much to do with the trio staying true to themselves over the years and recording the best songs they could find. As important as their music has been to them and to fans, DeMarcus says the greatest legacy they will leave behind is the pediatric surgery center at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, which was named after the band as they have donated more than $3 million to the Children’s Hospital.
“At the end of the day, I hope that people know that we loved music. We wanted to make music that would make the world a little bit of a better place,” he says. “The greatest legacy we’ll leave behind, of course, is the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, the surgery center there. Rascal Flatts Pediatric Surgery Center will be around long after we leave this world. I think in the end I will probably be most proud of that.”
Rascal Flatts have been the soundtrack to many lives. For 16 years, the trio’s music has left an indelible impact on the genre and the millions of fans it has touched. A lofty role for the band, it is one that they don’t take lightly.
“We have a lot of lives that we’ve impacted through the gift of music, which is an incredible responsibility and a huge honor,” DeMarcus concedes. “I think at the end of the day, we all feel like we’ve built something very, very special that a lot of times has helped people through very difficult situations [and] given them hope.”