Even in a career as filled with music and milestones as that of Rascal Flatts, there are times when capturing the moment isn't difficult. Sometimes, it only takes a word. The release of Changed, the trio's eighth studio album, is a great case in point. The CD debuted at #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, giving them the distinction of being one of only four acts to have seven consecutive studio albums debut in the top spot.
"Given what we've been through the past two years," says Jay DeMarcus, "I don't think there could be any better title. This feels like the next step in Rascal Flatts' evolution."
What the trio has been through amounts to an almost complete metamorphosis of the business aspects of their career. Jay, who handles bass and vocals, along with guitarist/vocalist Joe Don Rooney and lead vocalist extraordinaire Gary LeVox, have established themselves at Big Machine Records following the 2010 demise of their longtime label, and have joined forces with Spalding Entertainment after parting with their longtime management team. The fact that their first CD for Big Machine, Nothing Like This, hit #1 on the charts and produced three singles of the caliber of "Why Wait," "I Won't Let Go" and "Easy," would seem to indicate they've handled the process smoothly, but they are quick to point out that any transition this big holds its challenges.
"Change isn't always easy to go through," says Joe Don, "and some of this was hard for us. But fortunately there's another side to change. We're all family men now, husbands and fathers, and there is so much stability to draw on there. Put it all together, and it's life-changing stuff that can be scary, but beautiful at the same time."
There are, of course, many things that haven't changed: the soaring harmonies, the superb musicianship, the ability to write and select songs that speak to our hearts, the knack for knockout performances, and above all, the desire to push themselves to bring more to the table with each record.
"We have never lost the desire that brought us here in the first place," says Gary. "We don't ever want to bring anything less than our A-game to anything we do."
That hunger for excellence has borne fruit in every aspect of their phenomenal career. They have now sold more than 21 million albums and 25 million digital downloads. They have seen 14 singles hit the top of the charts, spending more than eight months collectively at #1. They have won more than 40 major awards, including seven ACM trophies for “Vocal Group of the Year” and six trophies for CMA “Vocal Group of the Year.” Recently they added a Grand Ole Opry membership, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (which is still yet to be officially put in place) and the prestigious Country Radio Seminar 2012 Artist Humanitarian Award to their list of accomplishments.
It's an amazing track record for a band not much more than a decade in the public eye. In fact, the guys look on this transition period as the perfect segue to the next decade. They paid tribute to their new beginning with their white-themed “Flatts Fest Tour.”
"The white theme was symbolic of a new beginning for Rascal Flatts," says Joe Don. "It was our way of celebrating a clean slate."
That slate has more than found its way to Changed.
"We looked at each other last year while all this was going on," says Jay, "and said, 'If we're going to keep doing this, we've got to recommit ourselves to do it better, do it stronger, do it harder.' We know we've got a lot left to say."
Nowhere is that more evident than in the album's title track, a compelling and dramatic picture of redemption written by Gary with Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley, with whom he also wrote "Fast Cars and Freedom" and "I Melt." It’s one Gary views as a gift.
"I think I just kind of held the pen and God wrote that one," he says, "but it sums up everything in our lives in the past ten years. It's one of those universal lyrics that everybody has lived some part of."
The public's first glimpse of the project came with its first single, "Banjo," which quickly rose to the upper reaches of the chart. It shows once again the trio's affinity for the unexpected and for music as sheer joy. A celebration of the out-of-the-way, off-the-map getaways that refresh us all, it's got big harmonies, high energy and an appearance by Ilya Toshinsky on the five-stringed instrument that lends the song its title. Of Ilya, one of a host of brilliant Nashville musicians taking part in the project under the direction of co-producer Dann Huff, Gary offers a sentiment in perfect keeping with the track's soaring spirit and down-to-earth roots, "That is the hillbilliest Russian I've ever heard in my life!"
Both songs hint at the extraordinary riches to be found throughout the project. "I feel like some of the best material we've ever cut is on this record," says Joe Don. "'Changed' and 'Banjo' kind of foreshadow all the fun twists and turns, the serious ballads--everything that Rascal Flatts is about is here."
"You can feel the growth and the fact that Rascal Flatts at its very core is on this record," adds Jay. "It’s got some of the most vulnerable and transparent material we've ever cut. Sometimes I feel like over the years we've been pretty light-hearted as a band. We're veterans now, talking about real-life issues, and I'm proud of the fact that we maybe go a little deeper on this record."
Each of the three had a hand in writing for the project. Besides “Changed,” Gary contributed “Great Big Love.” Jay penned "Let It Hurt," a powerful look at facing loss, and Joe Don wrote "Sunrise," an offer to cure heartache "one sunrise at a time."
In addition to the project's 11 songs, an extra track and four bonus tracks are available on a deluxe edition.
The guys worked again with co-producer Dann Huff, and together they have crafted an album as rich sonically as it is lyrically.
"Dann can bring out all the elements that make a song great," says Joe Don. "He has the ability to take something that's beautiful and make it even more beautiful."
"And he really pushes us," adds Gary. "He has so many ideas sometimes it's all we can do to keep up with him. He gets very excited about making great music, and that passion inspires us. We have a great time making music with him."
They're agreed that Changed is the best work they've done, and part of that stems from their ability to draw on their long experience.
"We couldn't have made this album any earlier in our career," say Jay. "We had to go through a lot of the stuff to get to this point."
That journey began when Jay and Gary, from the Columbus, Ohio, area, and Joe Don, from Picher, Oklahoma, teamed up in a club in Nashville's Printers Alley. “We knew right away we had something special,” says Jay, “even if we were the only ones who ever got to hear it.”
They weren’t. They quickly earned a record deal and talent, drive, and great song selection did the rest. Their list of hits constitutes one of the great bodies of work in modern country music, with "These Days," "Bless the Broken Road," "What Hurts The Most," "My Wish," "Take Me There" and "Here Comes Goodbye" as just the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg. Their performances are state-of-the art, house-rocking extravaganzas, sold-out excursions into musical excitement that have included as opening acts some of this generation's great artists, including Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean.
In 2013, they will continue the “Changed Tour,” with opening acts Kristen Kelly and The Band Perry.
"We rack our brains every year," says Joe Don, "and talk about, 'How is it going to be different from our last tour? How will it be better?' We're really excited."
All of it stems from the magic that happens when their voices unite and the respect with which they view their mission and each other.
“I truly feel like every time the three of us lock into a chorus,” says Gary, “God's hand is in it. I feel blessed to share the stage with Jay and Joe Don.”
"There's never been a method to our madness," adds Joe Don. "We just cut the best songs we can, and through the years we get better at what we do."
Committed to giving back, they are known for their charitable work, which includes raising three million dollars for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville. It's something close to all of their hearts.
"To give back when you're in a position to give seems like a natural thing to do," says Jay. "It's our responsibility as three guys who've been very blessed."
As for the accolades, it may be Opry membership that feels best to them at present.
"It's one of our proudest moments in the world, being part of the Opry family," says Gary. "We've been part of a lot of great things, but this is joining a wonderful family that will live on forever. It's mind-blowing."
It's a fitting tribute to a group that has brought so much to country music and its fans.
Jay, Joe Don and Gary see their latest album as the perfect representation of all the elements that go into the music that has given them so much success.
"Everything is in this big crock pot called Changed," says Gary with a laugh "It's got meat, potatoes, vegetables—all of it. It's fun, it's poignant, and we think the hard work that went into has really paid off. And we’re very glad to take one more big step down the road."