Interview: Rascal Flatts Find Themselves Again on ‘Back to Us’
As Rascal Flatts recorded their new album, Back to Us, the record's title represented much more than just the name of their favorite song on the project. The disc, released Friday (May 19), is the country trio's first since 2014's Rewind, and gave Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney a way to return to their roots, 17 years after their eponymous debut album.
"Back to Us is a wonderful representation of where we are right now in our careers," LeVox tells The Boot. "The three of us couldn’t be more proud of this project: It’s got amazing uptempo songs. It’s got huge power ballads on it. It’s got a Chris Stapleton tune ["Vandalized"]; of course, he sang the snot out of it. We have a duet with Lauren Alaina on there ["Are You Happy Now"], on a song that we wrote; it’s the first song that we’ve had on the record that the three of us have written for a while.
"It just captures where we started, where we have been and where we’re going," LeVox adds, "all in one record."
Whether it's the catchy "Roller Rink" (a deluxe-edition-only track), the inspirational "Our Night to Shine," the haunting "I Know You Won't" or Rascal Flatts' current single, "Yours If You Want It," each song on Back to Us allows DeMarcus, LeVox and Rooney to show off their creativity in ways they felt unable to in the past.
"We were really, really thrilled and excited that the trend in pop music is ‘80s again, because we all grew up in the ‘80s," DeMarcus explains. "It’s such a bigger color palette to paint from. You were sort of limited years ago in country music: You could put a mandolin on it, you could throw on a banjo; you might be able to get away with a little bit of a loop and a little bit of a synth pad, but, boy, if they heard any synthesizers, you were in trouble. Not so much anymore.
"Country’s opened its boundaries so wide that it embraces everything, and it gives everybody this new freedom to create now," DeMarcus continues. "So to go in and create this music is so much fun and so liberating, because we finally got to put all the elements in musically that we’ve always wanted to put in. That’s where you hear that broad range of sounds and techniques of building tracks and loops and beats and synths.
It just captures where we started, where we have been and where we’re going, all in one record.
"I think we stayed true to who Rascal Flatts is, we just pushed the musical boundaries a little bit," DeMarcus concludes. "There are still great songs with great lyrics; we’ve just done different things with the tracks."
"The hardest part, for me, is being in the band and knowing the way I want certain things to sound, but also having to listen to opinions, and very valid opinions, of my bandmates," DeMarcus admits. "So, sometimes, I’ll have to have conversations with them as a producer, and then conversations with them as a bandmate. They’re two distinctly different things, so it’s a challenge, but it’s one that I love, because I came to this town to be a producer and songwriter -- that’s what I wanted to do; I never set out to be an artist.
"It’s such a wonderful thing for me to be able to be in there and make music with people that I love, first of all," DeMarcus adds. "It’s something that I’m so passionate about."
See the Rascal Flatts Guys + More Country Stars Then and Now
Both LeVox and Rooney trust DeMarcus' abilities as a producer; however, they were initially hesitant to let him helm Back to Us.
"We didn’t want to put that on his shoulders," Rooney concedes. "We talked about a lot of things before this album -- exploratory things, working with other producers, A-listers all over the world -- and we just came to the conclusion: Jay was passionate about wanting to do it. He wanted to take on the task ...
"[Big Machine President and CEO] Scott Borchetta said it best: He was like, ‘You guys are at your best when it’s you three. Get your band in a room and rehearse a new song. Go record it,’" Rooney remembers. "It’s pretty cool how that path led to where we are here, talking about it."
Only about half of the 13 songs on the deluxe edition of Back to Us were written by at least one of Rascal Flatts' members; "Are You Happy Now" is the only song that the three of them wrote together. The album includes plenty of prolific songwriters -- Luke Laird, busbee, Chris DeStefano, the late Andrew Dorff and others -- but it was far more important for the trio to consider how each song sounded than it was to look at who wrote it.
I don’t know where the time went. It doesn’t feel like [almost two decades] at all.[/pullquotes]
"Sometimes we wouldn’t know who the writers were," Rooney shares. "Sometimes we did know, but not a lot. It had to be a great song. And it had to be something that swept us off our feet or made us do fist bumps, that kind of sensation. Quite a few times through the listening process, we all three did that again. It had been a while since we’d done that, but it’s a special feeling when you know you’ve got something that’s totally Rascal Flatts."
Although it's been almost two decades since Rascal Flatts introduced themselves to country music fans, in many ways, DeMarcus, LeVox and Rooney feel like they did when they were just getting started.
"It’s time travel," Rooney remarks. "When you love what you’re do and you’re passionate about it -- and creating a family along the way -- we still love what we do. We’re still so gung-ho about the next day: 'What’s going to happen tomorrow? What can we do that’s better than this day?'"
Adds DeMarcus, "We’re having so much fun. We’re so honored and humbled to be making and creating some of the best stuff I think we’ve ever created, musically. I don’t know where the time went. It doesn’t feel like that at all."
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