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Rascal Flatts bring ‘a little bite’ to country

Trios latest album 'Feels Like Today' climbs to No. 1 in a week
/ Source: The Associated Press

After five years, the guys from Rascal Flatts have heard enough.

Yes, they have strong pop and rock influences. No, they don’t wear cowboy hats. But their foundation is and always has been country music.

“No one beats up on anybody in the music industry worse than country music people,” says lead singer Gary LeVox. “You don’t hear Aerosmith telling Van Halen they’re too rock ’n’ roll. It just kind of gets frustrating.”

On their third album, “Feels Like Today,” which was released Tuesday and immediately hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart, the trio continue the full harmonies and pop/rock sound of their earlier work. There’s fiddle, mandolin and banjo, but usually in the background. There’s a little twang in LeVox’s vocals, but just a little.

“We wanted to be here. We wanted to be in country music,” says Jay DeMarcus, wearing a black AC/DC cap. “We just wanted to do something a little different. We wanted to do country music that had a little bit of hair to it, a little bite, a little dirt in it.”

The new album has all of that, and then some. LeVox’s upper-register voice soars on ballads like “Bless the Broken Road” and “When the Sand Runs Out.” The mid-tempo “Then I Did” has an R&B flavor, and “Oklahoma-Texas Line” is a backwoods romp.

Tales of relationships, good and badMany of the songs deal with relationships, some working and some broken. There’s also the reflective “Fast Cars and Freedom” with the imagery of “a dust trail followin’ an old red Nova,” and the ode to the fans, “Here’s To You,” which will satisfy anyone who’s ever camped out for concert tickets.

Collectively, LeVox, DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney co-wrote four of the 11 tracks. DeMarcus plays bass and Rooney electric guitar, and the trio co-produced the album with Mark Bright and Marty Williams.

Their contributions are important because, early on, Rascal Flatts took some knocks. Three young, clean-cut guys with lush harmonies and a sweet sound didn’t set well with the neo-traditionalists waiting for the next Merle Haggard or Hank Williams. They were derided as manufactured and too pop for country.

“We received a lot of criticism at the beginning,” DeMarcus says. “They said we were trying to be country’s answer to the Backstreet Boys or ’N Sync. I think we’ve worked very, very hard to dispel those misconceptions. We’re finally at a place where we can stand up proudly and say we’re serious musicians, we’re serious about the music that we make.”

Not the same fresh-faced boysThey’ve matured personally, too, Rooney says. LeVox had a second child in March, and DeMarcus got married in May. They’re not the fresh-faced boys critics once mistook them for.

“We’ve all grown as men; we’ve all changed,” says Rooney, 29. “We’ve learned a lot over last five years.”

DeMarcus, 33, and LeVox, 34, are second cousins who grew up playing music together in Columbus, Ohio. DeMarcus moved to Nashville in 1992 and earned his first record deal as part of a Christian group called East to West. He persuaded his cousin to quit his job with the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and join him in Nashville five years later.

The two eventually linked up with Oklahoma-native Rooney and Rascal Flatts was born. They signed with Lyric Street Records and their 1999 debut yielded four top 10 hits, including the No. 1 “I’m Movin’ On.”

Their follow-up “Melt” went double-platinum with the hits “Love You Out Loud,” “I Melt,” “These Days” and “Mayberry.” The band won the Country Music Association’s Horizon award in 2002, the Vocal Group of the Year award in 2003, and it is nominated again this year for that honor.

“It’s more than I ever though it would be,” LeVox says of the success. “My dream was to stand on that stage and sing, and that’s just icing on the cake now.”