Rascal Flatts Reaching Back With Their Eyes Forward
Success is difficult to come by and even tougher to keep. Rascal Flatts formed at the Fiddle & Steel Bar in Nashville's Printer's Alley nearly two decades ago and quickly found a foothold on stages and radios across the country. In recent years they'll admit they've slipped, gotten back up and once again found traction.
The trio talks about their latest Back to Us album as a return to the sound that made them famous, and in some sense that's very true. Gary LeVox' vocals are pure while singing songs of the heart. It's a lighter, less experimental project than Rewind (2014), an album they all seem to collectively agree may have stretched their identity too far. During an interview with Taste of Country, they didn't get into specifics unless they were talking about the 10 new songs.
Here they looked forward and backward. One of the album's signature songs is "Are You Happy Now," a duet with Lauren Alaina. This song was written prior to Rewind but didn't make it and stuck around. Finding the right duet partner is challenging because few vocalists are comfortable and confident singing alongside LeVox in the studio.
"Man, she came in and sang and she just like blew our brains off," Rooney says as the trio recalled the moment.
Another song, "I Know You Won't," is even older. Carrie Underwood originally cut the song on her Carnival Ride album, but never released it as a single. The trio's version aches with a more mature understanding of unrequited love.
"I think it’s more revealing coming from a guy’s point of view," LeVox says, "because you don’t usually have a guy be that honest, you know. Be that soft."
Elsewhere, Flatts leaned hard on the day's top songwriters and singers. Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney (Dan + Shay) co-wrote a song. So did Jesse Frasure, the man half responsible for much of Thomas Rhett's most recent success. Chris Stapleton co-penned "Vandalized," a soulful country groove with a decidedly more progressive arrangement than the bearded one would have put on it for his own album.
"Dance" is another that's ultra-2017. There's no hiding the synthetic drumbeat driving the song — it's a sound that would have come across very differently 17 years ago. Producer busbee worked on this album, replacing co-producers Howard Benson and Dann Huff, though the band members produced most of the tracks themselves.
The single "Yours If You Want It" ties it all together. It's indescribably authentic to what fans once knew about Rascal Flatts while still sounding very relevant among their contemporaries.
"I think the lyrics are just so real, too," LeVox says. "You know, the guy’s just being vulnerable and saying, 'Look, whatever’s left of me …'" The sentiment is so sweet, like look at this beat up, banged up, scarred up heart. You know, just simple things. He loves her, and you know, if this is what you’re into, if this is what you want, I don’t have a lot to offer, but what’s left of me, I’m gonna give it all to you, you know, kind of thing."
Award show recognition and chart-topping hits started to come near the end of the Rewind album cycle, and while it's easy to point to the music as the reason one also has to consider the country culture. For several years that coincided with their slide a more forceful brand of country love song dominated. LeVox, Rooney and DeMarcus have always invited, not coerced in song, and as the tide turns back they are again finding room to run songs to No. 1.
The trio recognize the timing coincidence but don't go as far as to admit there's a simple cause and effect relationship. They do admit they're forever tuning into fan feedback, however.
"I want to hear what people are saying," DeMarcus says. "Good, bad, ugly or indifferent, I want to hear what people have to say about what we’re doing."
Determining how to act on that feedback is complicated. An over-reliance can certainly be blamed for making an album you're not proud of three years later. Taking the negative with a grain of salt could clear a path back to a sound and style that's most honest.
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