When Rascal Flatts’ Joe Don Rooney stated, “we’re all made of music, made from music,” in regards to the band members’ solo endeavors, it could also stand as an all-encompassing mantra for the genre-defining group.
In January 2020, the beloved trio of Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Rooney announced that after 20 years, 16 No. 1 hits, 10 studio albums and countless memorable moments they were disbanding. The group was originally scheduled to spend much of 2020 bidding a fond farewell to their loyal fans with the Rascal Flatts Farewell – Life Is a Highway Tour, but plans were ultimately scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tour was to serve as a humble thank you to the fans who allowed them to live out their dreams for two decades. The multi ACM and CMA Vocal Group winners spent an afternoon in their manger’s office in 2019 envisioning what the future of the Flatts looked like. Their record deal with Big Machine Records was scheduled to be renewed, along with a touring deal with Live Nation, but as the group contemplated what the natural next step was, they came to the conclusion that it was time to walk separate paths.
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“I don’t think we’ll ever be one of those bands that go ‘that’s it, we’re breaking up. You’ll never see us again,’” DeMarcus reflects on that defining conversation in an interview with Sounds Like Nashville and other media, adding that the three share mutual “love and respect.” “I think it was in an effort for us to go ‘it’s been a great 20-year run. Let’s lay this down for a while, give ourselves some breathing room and some time to enjoy the fruits of our labor and do some other things we’re passionate about.’”
While the group has been together for 20 years, the bond was formed over a lifetime. LeVox and DeMarcus are second cousins, growing up in Columbus, Ohio while Rooney made his way to Nashville by way of Oklahoma. But it wasn’t until adulthood that DeMarcus was awoken to the power of his relative’s talent when he got a call from his mother urging him that LeVox had a noteworthy voice, so much so he was winning local singing competitions. “The first impression I had about Gary singing was one that I’ll never forget as long as I live,” DeMarcus shares. While traveling to Florida on vacation, LeVox made a pit stop in Nashville to visit his cousin, a trip that proved to be pivotal. With DeMarcus poised at the piano, LeVox let his voice fly. “As you might imagine, it just stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” the bassist insists. “There was this wonderful blend of R&B and gospel with country and all of these influences packaged together in one neat bow of this guy that was singing other worldly things that you just don’t hear come out of normal people’s mouths.”
LeVox began making frequent trips to Music City, the two signing up for any gig they could find before LeVox made the city his permanent home at his cousin’s beckoning. “These people’s mouths would just be on the floor when they would hear him sing,” DeMarcus remembers of early performances. But one fateful night at a Nashville honky tonk in the late 1990s would alter the course of their lives. LeVox hadn’t yet met Rooney when DeMarcus tasked him to fill in for the guitar player who called out sick the night they were scheduled to perform during the 9 p.m. – 3 a.m. slot at Fiddle & Steel Guitar Bar. Any worry LeVox had was dashed as they launched into Shenandoah’s “The Church on Cumberland Road.” “We hit that first chorus and I remember just goose bumps, like my pacemaker stopped,” LeVox recounts of the moment he calls a “seizure of joy.” “It was just a match made in heaven.” Similarly, Rooney, who had previously seen DeMarcus perform at various clubs in town, was immediately impressed by his future band mates’ talents. “I remember hearing Gary for the first time, he was one of the first singers I heard in Nashville, and I just remember going ‘is this the bar?’” Rooney laughs. “[I] also remember Jay, he’d be playing keys, he’d be playing bass, be playing drums, and I was like ‘is this going to ever stop? He plays everything.’ I was really overwhelmed by how much talent both of them have. Getting to see those two guys do their thing before I was with them was pretty special, very impactful on me.”
With an undeniable chemistry between them, the individual artists became a trio, signing a record deal with the now-defunct Lyric Street Records in 2000. Over the course of 20 years, the group released several platinum-selling albums containing multiple hits that defined a generation of country music. Like their longtime fans, the group members have grown alongside the music, seeing its messages through an ever-evolving lens. Both DeMarcus and Rooney point to “My Wish” as a song that continues to take on new meaning for them in the 14 years since its release. “I always viewed that as my mother’s song to me who had sacrificed so much for me growing up, putting me through private schools, working three jobs, and I always envisioned her singing that to me whenever we do that song,” DeMarcus remarks on the lyrics that encourage listeners to dream big, keep worries small and know that they faithfully have someone in their corner who loves them. But when DeMarcus became a father to son Dylan and daughter Madeline, it added a new element to the song, serving as a wish to his own children. Rooney, a father of three, identifies with this same sentiment. “’My Wish’ is one of those ones that I remember singing on stage before having children, and now it takes on such a whole new meaning being a father and a husband,” he explains. “In some ways, it might sound strange, but we’re fans of our music as well because we’ve grown with some of our songs in ways that fans have, and so that song really hits me in the heart big time.”
Another defining song came in the form of “Bless the Broken Road.” Originally recorded by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1994 and then by co-writer Marcus Hummon in 1995, the Flatts got their hands on it in 2004, their version spending five weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and was named Best Country Song at the 2005 Grammy Awards. “Bless the Broken Road” has become a wedding anthem and a staple in the trio’s catalogue, but it’s one that almost wasn’t a chapter in their story. The group considered recording it for 2002’s Melt, but ultimately decided against it at the time on the account that they’d already filled their ballad quota for the project. But during the process of making their follow-up album, Feels Like Today, DeMarcus recommended recording “Broken Road,” a song he’s since developed a deep connection with, serving as a symbol of the journey that turned the band mates into brothers. “’Bless the Broken Road’ always hits me right in the heart every time I hear it because there are so many things that I parallel in my own life to that lyric. I feel like in a lot of ways Gary, Joe Don and myself, all of our broken roads led us to each other. We all had to go through our own journey to get to where we are in Rascal Flatts,” DeMarcus observes. “I had a lot to get through to overcome a lot in my own life to get to where I am with these guys, and I feel like every time we sing that song, I reflect on what it took to bring the three of us together.”
The passion and connection behind the songs is what’s helped earned the group a fervent fan base that has followed them for 20 years and led them to such bucket list achievements as selling out Madison Square Garden, being the first country band to headline Wrigley Field and becoming members of the Grand Ole Opry. “I don’t think it really dawned on any of us what rarified air we were actually in at the time and being able to fully take that in and enjoy it and slow down and now to look around and go ‘this is the chance of a lifetime that we may never see again,’” DeMarcus shares of the advice he’d offer their younger selves while experiencing those career highs. “I wish I could go back to tell ourselves ‘while you’re in the middle of this ride, just slow down, take a deep breath, and take it all in, because it really is pretty special.’”
Since its founding, the fans have been the heartbeat of Rascal Flatts. In the fan video for the group’s genuine single “How They Remember You,” 20 years worth of memories are compiled into a three-minute clip complete with meet and greet photos, T-shirts that read “future Rascal Flatts fan” pointing to a fan’s baby bump and singing with fans onstage. The footage captures the unbreakable bond between the trio and the Flattheads, LeVox noting how they’ve often seen multiple generations come through meet and greet lines, citing the Flatts fandom as a tradition that’s passed down. “With our fans, the greatest thing that we hear continuously is that the music that we’ve written or that we’ve cut, we have told their life story through Rascal Flatts music. Every step of their life from marriage to graduation to divorce to addiction to cancer, we’ve really told people’s life story, and that is timeless and that is the greatest reward as an artist you could ever receive from fans,” LeVox raves.
But the insurmountable bond shared between the two forces is at the core of one of Rooney’s favorite career stories. During a show Greenville, S.C., the Flatts invited a fan who was battling cancer onstage during a performance of “Skin.” She was joined by her husband, who took off his hat to reveal that he had shaved his head as an act of solidarity, one that is sealed in the band mates’ hearts. “Those moments like that are just unbelievable. The power of music and just that call and response of the fans, we miss that so much. Moments like that’ll live with us forever,” Rooney vows.
With years of recollections ringing in their heads, the guys are moving toward new horizons in pursuit of their individual dreams. LeVox is currently working on a gospel album, with a solo country record waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, DeMarcus is staying active with his record label, Red Street Records, mentoring up-and-coming Christian artists in addition to working with Jason Crabb on his upcoming album. Rooney has also found himself in a mentorship role leaning heavily into songwriting, learning as much from the young writers he’s working with as he is teaching them. And while the future of the Flatts remains open-ended, 2020 has offered them a rare opportunity to truly soak in the magnitude of what they’ve accomplished over two decades, commemorated in Twenty Years of Rascal Flatts: The Greatest Hits.
“I think that this year has caused all of us to take stock of what’s really important and realize how precious the time is that we have together. I think all of us would be lying if we said we didn’t miss what we love to do and what we feel that we’ve been put on this planet to do. This year has forced us into not doing something that we love so much,” DeMarcus says. “But it also is a great lesson in that tomorrow is never promised to any of us, so it has made me really appreciate the 20 years that we’ve had together, and more importantly, the fans that have been so loyal to us over those 20 years,” he continues, adding, “I’m also smart enough to know that nothing I do will ever be as big as what I’ve been a part of with the Flatts, so that remains closest to my heart. I hope to be back in the studio with the guys again at some point.”
When the band sings “it ain’t if, it’s how they remember you,” the final line in “How They Remember You,” one realizes it’s a powerful statement they’ve been answering for 20 years through every song that has turned a fan into family – a legacy that fans will continue to reap the benefits of long after the stage lights go dim. “I hope that our music, when it’s all said and done and we leave this earth, lasts so long that people are still being touched by it, people are still being moved by it,” DeMarcus professes, calling the past 20 years “extraordinary” and “supernatural.” “We only made music for them, not critics, not anybody else,” LeVox promises. “We just want people to know that we did it with complete love.”