When Rascal Flatts' new record "Rewind" released in May, it was the trio's eighth consecutive studio album to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. Fourteen years into their career, Rascal Flatts has not lost any commercial steam.
The group's fans are huge in number and skew young. This is no easy feat, given that the trio's members register as middle-aged in a youth-centric pop culture. Lead singer Gary LeVox and harmony singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Jay DeMarcus are both 43. Guitarist and harmony singer Joe Don Rooney is the youngest at 38.
How has Rascal Flatts managed to continue appealing to a young demographic?
"I don't think we think about it like that. It just happens to be that way for the most part," says Rooney. "We're all growing as men in the family role. We all have kids now, so life is a little different than it was ten years ago. But over 14 years, we've learned what our strengths and weaknesses are. We try to hone in on our strengths as much as we can and maximize that."
Rascal Flatts plays First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on Saturday with openers Sheryl Crow and Gloriana. Their current tour is a testament to how they've sustained a solid and loyal audience.
"We have fans that have been with us for 14 years now," says Rooney. "They've walked the whole distance with us. We've cut songs that appeal to them and have been a part of their lives in some positive way. (Some have) gotten married to 'Bless the Broken Road.' After 10 years of marriage they want to come to a show and hear us sing the song they played at their wedding."
The trio has been in the business long enough to have accrued a multi-generational span of fans. "We can do a show that appeals to everybody," Rooney laughs." It's safe for little children to come to." He says their fans are "cradle to the grave" and include full families with grandparents, grandkids and parents in the middle.
Industry observers concur.
"I think the reason they've stayed relevant is that they're really smart about who their fans are," says Wade Jessen, Billboard's country chart manager. "They realized that the 14 year olds who listened to them in the early days are 30 now. The band is still important to their first fans and now they have another generation of fans."
Like Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts has perfected a certain form of Nashville pop: slick, sincere and catchy as all get out. "Rewind" features a lot of the trio's trademark features. The material cannily includes a current youthful reference to Instagram and also unabashedly touts the allure of traditional values, faith in Jesus and a reverence for home.
DeMarcus and Rooney are talented instrumentalists who add classic vocal harmonies to the songs. LeVox is a distinctive tenor who applies his octave-hopping voice to melodramatic power ballads and lite rockers. The sugary riffs recall '80s dance pop, new wave and hair metal, with the country signifier of banjo percolating underneath the mix. Many of these songs would have found a snug fit on '80s Top 40 radio.
Rooney says their harmonies gelled the first time the three performed together in 1999. At the time, Rooney and DeMarcus already knew each other through a mutual friend and had played together in the backing band of country singer Chely Wright.
DeMarcus and LeVox, who are cousins, had a regular gig at Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar in Printer's Alley in Nashville. One night their guitarist cancelled. DeMarcus called Rooney and asked if he'd fill in.
"Jay had been telling me about his cousin Gary," Rooney says.
"I get down to the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar and meet Gary for the first time. We started singing 'The Church on Cumberland Road' by Shenandoah. Gary was just killing it. He gets to that chorus and Jay just looked at me and said, 'Take the harmony above him and I'll take the harmony below him.' We get to that first chorus and immediately locked into those harmonies. We all three fell in love in that moment. There was a harmony, a vibe, an effortlessness that was just there. That is the essence of Rascal Flatts — meeting in a club one random night and still being here to talk about it."
The three men have remained personally close through the pressures of a long major-label career.
"We really lean on each other," says Rooney. "It's always been that way. We're very blessed to have each other in our lives. It's a bond the three of us share that is unique to any other bonds we have in our lives. No one in our lives, no one in or outside the business, can ever understand how the three of us are connected. That's something we cherish. We've walked through the fire at times because it hasn't always been lights up and the stage perfect."
The trio has weathered business challenges that have felled less stable partnerships. Rooney says 2010 and 2011 were trying years for the trio. Rascal Flatts' first label Lyric Street Records shut down. They changed management and signed to new label Big Machine Records.
"Those were some big transitions for us," he says. "We rededicated ourselves to each other, the people around us and the company that was involved in the culture of Rascal Flatts. We involved ourselves in every aspect of it. We feel that we're just getting started in a lot of ways. It feels very magical."
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, 19100 S. Ridgeland, Tinley Park
Tickets: $31 - $91.65; 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com