Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Whether you love or hate their music — and many music fans stand passionately on either side — it’s hard to deny the star power attached to Rascal Fla

Whether you love or hate their music — and many music fans stand passionately on either side — it’s hard to deny the star power attached to Rascal Flatts.

To date, the country trio has sold some 20million albums and nearly 6 million concert tickets, notched 11 No. 1 singles and five No. 1 albums. With wins at the ACM and CMA Awards, The People’s Choice Awards, The American Music Awards and others, the band has amassed more trophies than any other country group in the history.

Their Unstoppable album emerged among a small handful of the year’s country records to go platinum.

But as the members of Rascal Flatts hatched plans to launch a 10-year anniversary tour in the summer of 2010 and to follow it up with a new CD in the fall, they approached both — perhaps surprisingly — spurred by feelings of frustration.

“I feel like Unstoppable is the best music we’ve ever done,” bassist Jay DeMarcus said. “It’s kind of disappointing for me that Unstoppable hasn’t sold like (quadruple-platinum 2006 LP) Me and My Gang did, because I feel like pound-for-pound and song-for-song we were able to cut the best record of our lives. I just hope as many people get to hear Unstoppable as heard Me and My Gang, because there are some brilliant songs written by some brilliant people that will sadly never be heard on the radio.”

And it isn’t just album sales that have the band feeling down as they take stock at their decade milestone. The generally G-rated trio even tiptoed into four-letter-word territory when discussing the recent CMA Awards and some music industry folks’ general disrespect of or disregard for their music.

In November, Rascal Flatts lost the CMA group of the year award to Lady Antebellum, ending a six-year winning streak. It was also the second year in a row — after being nominated in 2006 and 2007 — that the band wasn’t nominated for the top entertainer of the year prize, despite having sold more than 1 million concert tickets over the previous 12 months.

“Nobody is going to sit here and not be honest and say that it isn’t disappointing to not get recognized for your hard work,” DeMarcus said. “We’ve been able to do so many incredible things. We’ve had so many great tours, and to look at those ballots and think you can’t be nominated for entertainer of the year is disappointing. But we absolutely do not begrudge any one else from being in those categories. We just feel like we’ve worked very hard, too, and it’s nice to be recognized for that hard work.”

Losing the group of the year CMA trophy, DeMarcus admitted, was a shock — and a motivator.

“Lady Antebellum had a great year,” DeMarcus said. “But honestly, losing lit a fire under our (butts) to say, ‘You know what, this has been our award for the last six years and we need to go take it back, and we are going to work our tails off to try and do that very thing. We’re not that old yet.’”

“Walking out after the group thing, fans we’re yelling, ‘Hey they didn’t sell out Wrigley Field,’” added guitarist Joe Don Rooney, referring to the fact that in 2009 the trio, with 38,000 tickets sold, became the only country act ever to sell out the park. “People were screaming from the seats. But they don’t have a voice.”

“I think every awards show should be fan voted,” singer Gary LeVox said. ‘We knew who we were’

Fans’ voices are heard loudly enough at the checkout line, however, and the members of Rascal Flatts can look back in 2010 on a decade of consistent cheers there.

To DeMarcus, that sustained success is due at least in part to he and his band mates sticking to a policy of trusting their own vision — one that was developed “singing covers until their vocal chords bled” during the 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. bar-band slot at the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar in Printer’s Alley in the late’90s.

Connie Bradley, senior vice president for performing rights organization ASCAP, remembers seeing the trio play at an office on Music Row in 1999, and said she knew instantly she was seeing the future of country music.

“Some bands get good, but Rascal Flatts started out good,” she said. “They were just young kids then, and today they are responsible for bringing thousands of young fans to country music.”

In late 1999, Flatts signed with now-longtime label Lyric Street Records. The company gave the trio the chance to sing their own songs — and the creative freedom to apply their more contemporary sensibilities to their recording projects.

“Randy Goodman over there at Lyric Street really believed in what we were about from day one,” DeMarcus said. “…It was refreshing to think, ‘I get to make my own statement in the music industry now, and succeed or fail, it’s going to be us and we’re going to do it our way.’ … I know some artists are forced to cut songs they don’t believe in and their identity is somewhat ambiguous, but ours never was. We knew who we were, and we knew what we were about, and we were going to try and put music out that we believed in so hopefully other people would believe in us, too.”

The band’s first single, “Prayin’ for Daylight,” peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s country singles chart, and the subsequent singles from their self-titled debut all landed soundly in the Top 10.

Sophomore CD Melt earned Rascal Flatts their first multi-platinum LP and their first and second No. 1 hits (“These Days”and “Mayberry”).

“I remember that was a really big week for us in town,” Rooney said of the album’s debut week, which fell around 2002’s CMA Awards, “and a lot of people were talking about, ‘Who is the new artist going to be that’s going to lead the way for the next10-year period?’ It felt really good at that time, but we never dreamed we would be here. That’s really when the ruckus started.”

The ruckus continues

Rascal Flatts’ modern music and fashion sensibilities have, over 10 years, earned the band its share of barbs both inside and outside of Nashville(The New York Times, for one, categorized Flatts in 2008 as “by and large, a power-ballad band,” noting that their “pedal steel guitar or mandolin are usually more visible than audible”.

“Because they don’t dress very country, or sing very country, or carry themselves as being very country, I think they are easy targets,” said critically acclaimed songwriter and recording artist Rory Feek, one half of country duo Joey + Rory. “Someone told me that after watching the CMA Awards that the thing that makes country music country music is disappearing right in front of us, and that’s sincerity, humility and story telling. Country music can be a big broad thing, but the thing that makes it are those things. And when that goes away, what do we have?”

Whether they’re too pop or not, country songwriters certainly still seem to want their songs on Flatts records. Jody Williams, vice president of writer publisher relations at performing rights organization BMI, said a Rascal Flatts cut remains one of the most coveted among songwriters and publishers in town.

“You know Flatts records are going to sell like crazy and go right to the top ofthe charts,” Williams said. “There’s no telling how many millions of dollars they’ve put into the songwriters and publishers in Nashville. They write some songs themselves, but they are smart enough that when they hear another great song by another writer they will always record it. That’s what’s so great, and why I think the songwriting and publishing community respects them so much because they know there’s a shot there.”

Opinions, whether positive or negative, Rooney said, ultimately aren’t going to sway the band’s now well-established approach to making modern country music.

“It’s no secret that we’ve always tried to push the envelope,” he said. “We wanted to be us. Our music does push the envelope of what traditionalists consider country music, and that’s totally cool. You can’t be like other people. You have to make your own niche. It feels really great to be where we’re at, and we know that comes with a price.”

“Hopefully at the end of the day we can have enough character to realize people are going to have their opinions about us, and as long as our fans keep getting what we’re doing and as long as we keep believing in the music we’re putting out there, at the very end of the day that’s all that matters," DeMarcus added. "We can walk around with our heads held high... Country is a lot more than cowboy boots and cowboy hats. It’s astate of mind.”

This article was originally posted by The Tennessean