There was a knock on Rascal Flatts’ dressing room door, followed quickly by the familiar face of Jay Leno, here to welcome Thursday’s “Tonight Show” musical guests to the NBC lot in Burbank.
“Howdy, boys,” said the comedian. Then he noticed the laptop in front of singer Gary LeVox. “Good ol’ country boys with computers,” Leno drawled. “Yessiree bob, can’t get more country than that. You guys got your boots and your computers, there you go.”
LeVox, bassist Jay DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney got a good laugh out of Leno’s remarks, but a few minutes later they were talking much more seriously about this whole question of what is and what isn’t permissible in country music.
“I guess you’ve got to start with what’s the standard by which you measure what country music is,” said DeMarcus, 34. “And then once everybody figures that out, then we can say what’s country and what’s not.”
It’s an issue that keeps circling Rascal Flatts, because the Nashville-based trio has sold more than 8 million albums in the past six years with a sound that blends its fiddles and mandolins deep in pop-flavored arrangements. That sales figure is likely to climb in the coming months, because the group’s fourth album, “Me and My Gang,” comes out Tuesday.
That commercial visibility has made Rascal Flatts one of the most obvious targets of those who decry country music’s drift toward pop. It’s an eternal struggle, going back to the ‘60s when Buck Owens and Merle Haggard created a raw, soulful alternative to Nashville’s sweetened “countrypolitan” hits.
It continued in the 1970s, when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings led the outlaw movement in seceding from the commercial mainstream. In recent years Gretchen Wilson has picked up the torch, coming along to shake up the establishment with her redneck-woman rebel yell.
So the question is nothing new for Rascal Flatts, three nice guys who say they’re just doing what comes naturally. And if the Eagles and Elton are strong among their influences, at least they know their country history.
“At the end of the day, what’s country?” said DeMarcus. “What’s country to one of those traditionalists might not be country to somebody else that loves bluegrass. They may look at that and say, ‘Well that’s not country.’ Just like they did with Merle Haggard in the late ‘60s. He was scoffed at because he took horns on the Grand Ole Opry.
“So everybody that dogs us out for not being country enough needs to look at the fact that country music has always gone through phases and changes,” he said. “Back in the old days at the Opry, they used to put the drummer behind the curtain because they didn’t want to show people that they actually had a drummer in the band. So it’s evolved continually. We’re not the first to bring change into country music.”
The three musicians see their brand of country as one of an increasingly diverse assortment of flavors in the field, and they think that range has helped restore country’s commercial and creative health.
Rooney, 30, recalled his high school years in Picher, Okla. The town’s population was 800, too small for cliques. Rooney would play 30 minutes of football, then take off his shoulder pads and march in the band at halftime.
“What it did for me was it just taught me to be open-minded,” said the guitarist, the group’s boyish, Brad Pitt figure. “It taught you there’s lots of outlets in life -- try them all, man.”
Rascal Flatts formed when Rooney teamed up with LeVox and DeMarcus, second cousins who had moved to Nashville from Columbus, Ohio. Things fell into place quickly for the three, who signed with the Disney-owned Lyric Street label. Their first singles did well, but it was “I’m Movin’ On,” a 2001 song about breaking the shackles that hold you back in life, that launched them to stardom and gave them a taste for big-issue ballads.
“A great lyric, big choruses,” said LeVox, 35, the quietest of the three members, describing his taste in a tune. “A song that’s written about true life -- anything you can play at a wedding is probably gonna be a hit.”
If anything, Rascal Flatts is becoming more eclectic these days. In addition to an upcoming concert tour (which stops at Staples Center on July 17), the trio collaborated with R&B;/pop producer Babyface on a version of “More Than a Woman” for a Bee Gees tribute collection, and recorded a duet with soul singer India.Arie for her upcoming album. And DeMarcus is the producer of the just-released album by Chicago, one of his favorite bands since childhood.
Those credits aren’t likely to endear them to the purists, but at that point DeMarcus was tired of hearing about it.
“We’ve never been concerned what the critics say anyway. If they want to give us heat for being different, so what? I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, they can kiss our collective butts, because our fans have spoken and they’ve gone out and bought the records in droves, and they show up every night by the thousands to see us play. So they’re what I’m concerned about. We’ll keep making music for them as long as they’ll have us.”