With ‘Back to Life,’ Rascal Flatts Could Catch Alabama
Joe Don Rooney chuckles as he tells a story about his dad flipping out over seeing a cavalcade of country legend Alabama's semi trucks rolling down the interstate near their Oklahoma hometown when he was growing up.
"It was like '89 or '90 when they were just on fire," Rooney says. “He said, 'I saw seven of ‘em, right in a row.’ And I said ‘Really!' and my eyes were really big and his eyes were really big because he loved them so much."
Alabama notched their first radio hit in 1980, and started to lose their place after releasing "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You," a collaboration with N'Sync in 1999. By comparison, Rascal Flatts notched their first hit in 2000 and just dropped a new single called "Back to Life." It's 19 years to 18 years, with this trio of Rooney, Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus showing few signs of slowing down.
We say "few signs" because they are making a career change, but "It’s really cool to go back to those moments and think about the seeds being planted, and now knowing what we’ve been able to do living in Nashville, it’s incredible," Rooney says, his bandmates nodding in agreement.
So about that change? It's kind of drastic. “I think our years of cutting full-length albums are on hold right now,” bassist and producer DeMarcus says when pressed for more details about where the new music will live. Fans can expect more immediate releases via streaming partners or digital retailers, but for the most part, they're hopping off the album-every-two-years train they've been on for nearly two decades.
"You need to continue to find ways to engage fans to keep them excited about what you're doing," he says. "So we're going to keep hitting them with content ... we may do a country cover batch. We may do a hair metal band batch of songs and just experiment with some of the things that we grew up loving."
At the time of the interview in late August, they had cut several covers by artists including Foreigner, Huey Lewis and the News and Kenny Loggins.
In 10 years, we'll know if they stepped back from the album cycle to recharge or relax, but it's clear Rascal Flatts are still interested in making new, relevant country music right now. Dan + Shay's Shay Mooney co-wrote "Back to Life," their first single of 2018 and one of five they've been working on. The duo also toured with Rascal Flatts this year, and there's a bond between them that allows for the kind of teasing you'd reserve for brothers.
"They could have put this song on their latest album," Rooney begins after DeMarcus shared how the writers targeted Rascal Flatts for the song, with Mooney (a modern day Gary LeVox) even singing the demo.
"It shows you how stupid they are too," DeMarcus quips.
"I'm glad you said that because I was gonna say that," Rooney adds as they all laugh.
Dan + Shay have been open about how the trio have influenced them, and years ago, that may have been threatening to a group of men that had carved out their own lane in country music. There are a lot of similarities between the acts, but "humbled" is the word Rascal Flatts keep repeating when asked to describe the dynamic.
"A lot of people have said that when we first hit the scene, we kind of opened the doors for that style of music," LeVox says. "We're just humbled by it. We take great pride in doing what we've done, and other acts come in and like what we've done and they kind of take our sound and made it their own and expanded on it."
We'll stop short of calling it a mentor relationship, but it's clear Mooney and Smyers look up to the group and Flatts are willing to help. They've now cut several songs written by one or both members of the duo, taken them on the road and talked about that special form of trolling reserved for pop-country artists.
"Shay and I, we've definitely talked about it," LeVox says. "At this point, that's such old news, and such a terrible box to try to continue to contain people in. You got Luke Bryan and everybody else, they're having hip-hop loops behind them. What's country and what isn't country? It's the lifestyle, it's what you sing about, what you talk about, but musically there's nobody that has fiddles in it anymore."
"I think those arguments are so naive now because of how wide open the genre is. There's room for everybody," DeMarcus says.
"As an artist, you feel if it's right or not for you," Rooney says. "When we started out, we felt comfortable with what we did; whether we got criticized for it or not, we felt like it was the right thing to do. Being true to your artistry and what you believe and staying that path is one of the hardest things you might have to try to do as an artist."
DeMarcus again: "I think it may be harder for us back then than it is for them, because they get instant feedback on social media. We didn't have instant feedback. We had to keep doing what we were doing to see if people were liking it."
Time is a wheel so, of course, Flatts are playing the role once played for them by Vince Gill and Toby Keith. "Hey man," Rooney starts, impersonating what the "How Do You Like Me Now?" singer told them years ago. "Who gives a crap, man? Just do what you wanna do."
It's a lousy impression, but it's advice they're still following today.
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