NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As a group, Rascal Flatts sold millions of albums, scored a string of hits and stood at the top of country music. But the truth was Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney weren't much of a team.
It wasn't until December 2010, the end of a decade in which they dominated as country music's most successful and awarded band, that the three had their first face-to-face meeting to talk business. Controlled by a committee that included managers and others with sway, the three guys in Rascal Flatts realized they weren't really running Rascal Flatts. They were just CCs on an endless string of emails.
"We were so guilty in the past of not talking to one another, not communicating with each other very well, to the point that it kind of fell on management's lap to make the decision for us," Rooney said. "And shame on us for a lot of that stuff. But at the same time, we woke up one day and knew we needed to make a change. That's what I love about the three of us. We were wise enough to wake up and say to each other, 'It's time to move on and do this differently.'"
The guys say their eighth studio album, the aptly named "Changed," offers a glimpse of what the band has become in the 16 months since the first time they sat down together. It's the second album since they joined Big Machine Records, but the first they conceived and recorded since the collapse of their label Lyric Street and their switch of managers to Clarence Spalding.
In just a little more than a year, they've taken control of their career in a way they hadn't imagined, strengthened their relationships and taken deeper control of the creative side as well, producing four tracks on the new album themselves in DeMarcus' home studio.
"It was a chance to even further cement the recommitment we'd made to each other," DeMarcus said.
"We just wanted to," LeVox said. "And we did."
"There's a thought," DeMarcus said. "We just did."
While they're reveling in their newfound freedom, it's hard to talk about where they are today without hurting feelings. DeMarcus says the group "cherishes" the time they spent with its previous managers, and there's a lot to cherish — 20 million albums sold, dozens of major awards and a dominant run that few groups in country music history can match.
Things began to change seemingly over a short period of time. DeMarcus and Rooney started families, changing priorities and points of view. Disney shuttered Lyric Street, leaving them without a home. And while Rascal Flatts continued to sell albums, fill seats and appear all over the dial, they noticed erosion in the excitement that success generated within the industry.
As their record label prepared to shut down, LeVox picked up the phone and called DeMarcus, who is his cousin, and Rooney. They agreed to meet at DeMarcus' Nashville home. They needed to make a decision about management. They needed to decide what to do with their career and unreleased album. Everything was on the table, including perhaps dissolving the group and doing other things.
"We sat down, just the three of us, which was so unlikely, believe it or not," Rooney said. "Usually it was the three of us plus numerous amounts of people on the Flatts team at the time, just talking about every situation in Rascal Flatts' career. So just for the two of us to drive to Jay's house and talk about these issues was so important and that was the moment I think we woke up again. I think that was the moment Rascal Flatts finally knew what we had. We didn't realize that the three of us were the ones that really freakin' matter."
Once they did, they took steps to reinforce that idea. They turned to Spalding, manager of acts like Brooks & Dunn and Jason Aldean, to guide their career. He did away with the emails and made them a promise.
"I told them there will never ever ever be any important decisions made without all three of them in the room looking at each other," Spalding said. "And that's the way it should be. I've never come out of a meeting with them that I didn't feel great, you know, that I didn't feel positive energy coming out of it."
Rascal Flatts originally sought out Spalding to manage their career years ago, but it didn't work out back then. Now he takes over at a critical juncture for the band and what members hope is the halfway point and not the peak of their career.
Spalding has experience in this area. He managed Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks for 19 years, guiding them through reinvention upon reinvention as they rose to the top of the genre before finally splitting in 2010 while still popular.
He believes Flatts has the ability to continue to climb like his dynamic duo did. He's just there to help — a "guidance counselor" along the way.
Since the trio's first meeting, they've reached a lifelong goal of joining the Grand Ole Opry. They've implemented ideas they've had for years, like last year's "Flatts Fest" tour. And "Changed" shows the band reaching deeper into its love of country music and exploring the muse on its own for first time. In a lot of ways it's an expression of the joy they've felt since settling on their future.
"We've had the best year we've had in six years," DeMarcus said.
"Equally, we can all say that," Rooney added.