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Now, I’m not saying Joe Don Rooney comes off as smug – that’s not an acceptable attitude for a performer to have in the economy of country megastardom – but he sure sounds happy to be exactly where he is, doing exactly what he’s doing. He is, after all, the lead guitarist/singer in a trio (Rascal Flatts) in a format (mainstream country) that isn’t opposed to spotlighting hooky guitar licks. “Other than country radio,” he points out, “there’s no other format, really, where you can hear some great guitar playing. It’s like everything’s so digitized and synthesized right now.”
The wistful, loop-laced title cut off of Rascal Flatts’ latest album, Rewind, is currently climbing the Billboard country charts, and the insistent thump of tracks like DJ Tonight and Powerful Stuff confirms that the group had EDM on the brain. That’s a brand-new influence for a band – rounded out by formidable frontman Gary LeVox and bassist/singer Jay DeMarcus – that’s been incorporating rock and pop flavors into its toothsome sound throughout its decade-and-a-half-long recording career.
It’s a welcome new challenge for Rooney, who grew up in Pitcher, Oklahoma, pledging allegiance to both honky-tonk and alternative rock with his sea foam green Telecaster, and put in time in regional country bands and family theaters, before landing his first Nashville job with Chely Wright, who was also employing DeMarcus, and sitting in with DeMarcus and his cousin LeVox at a bar gig one night. That was where it all started, and Rooney has plenty to say about what’s happened since.
I gather that the amount of time you spent on this album – more time than the eight you’d made previously – had to do with you reinventing yourselves as a band. Now that you’re nearly a decade and a half into your recording career and have a track record of phenomenal success at both country and pop radio, what dod you feel like was at stake? What did that process of creative reinvention look like?
“That’s definitely something that we were thinking about going into the studio. We sat down with [label boss] Scott Borchetta at Big Machine back in late 2012 and said, ‘We want to make another album.’ And he was like, ‘Let’s do this the right way. I want you guys to take your time.’ We literally got a white board out and started writing some producers names down and started checking ‘em off the list one by one until we came up with a couple of producers we might want to work with that we’d never done work with in the past. And Howard Benson was one of those producers. Actually, Scott Borchetta had thrown his name in the hat.
“Howard brought that rock background to the table, because that’s all he’s ever done. He’s never tried to do anything in the country music world, and we never tried to go to a rock producer. So it was a little bit of working with no safety net, and it was fun. I think the cool thing was, Howard comes from a different place – his ears are different. So we love what he brought to the dance, the different songs.
"A lot of the demos we were [listening to] were just straight, bare-bones rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, pretty aggressive demos. It was pretty cool, because normally in Nashville when people are pitching songs to us, a lot of these writers nowadays try to make their demos sound like a Rascal Flatts record. And that’s totally fine. What we wanted to do was get out of that mode, and Howard was the first one to get us into that new mode."