One of the reasons Rascal Flatts has sold millions over the decade is their deft blend of rock and pop in anthematic crossover hits, from the cover of "Life Is a Highway" to the heart-tugging ballad "What Hurts the Most."
Fans will find those familiar touches on their latest record, including their first single, the soaring top 10 Billboard country hit "Here Comes Goodbye." But bassist and songwriter Jay DeMarcus says Flatts fans may be surprised by what else they hear on the trio's latest CD, "Unstoppable," released this week.
"In an odd way, this album is a bit more country than even 'Me and My Gang' and even 'Still Feels Good' was," DeMarcus says.
"We love pop too and we've had so much success there," he adds. "(But) we were at a place where we said, 'You know what? There are some times where good old-fashioned country music is still the best thing in the world.'"
Putting old-fashioned country and Rascal Flatts in the same sentence may seem oxymoronic, especially since they were seen early on as a slick, boy band-type act. But the group — which includes DeMarcus' cousin, lead singer (and sometime songwriter) Gary Levox and guitarist Joe Don Rooney — has dominated country music with enduring hits spanning nearly 20 million albums sold since its 1999 debut.
The band won its seventh straight trophy for best vocal group Sunday at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
"It's fun to go on this journey with these guys," says Dann Huff, the group's longtime producer. "They're totally living this dream. They came to Nashville just to see if they could make a living in music. I don't think they ever dreamt of this. But they're there."
They've remained together not only by maintaining a strong friendship — they good-naturedly poke fun, finish each other's sentences and dole out compliments during an hour-long interview — but also by crafting albums with mainstream songs. While members of the group have had a hand in writing some of Rascal Flatts' hits, they've also been smart enough to solicit other songwriters who seem to have a knack for writing hits.
Rooney says one of the most emotional tunes on the record for him is "Things That Matter," co-written by Levox, which talks about family and love trumping some of the other things that threaten to get in the way.
"It definitely hit me right in the heart having a baby," says Rooney, whose wife gave birth to a son almost a year ago. "We try to look for songs like that that speak to us, because if they can speak to us we know they'll speak to a lot of other people too."
The album closes with another emotional song written by outside writers, titled "Why," about suicide.
"It's written in a very delicate way to where it deals with the subject matter," says DeMarcus. "Gary and I had an uncle who shot himself eight years ago, so we've experienced it firsthand in our own family."
Huff says the inclusion of "Why" and other tracks shows a maturation for the guys, all of whom are in their 30s and married (Levox and his wife also have children).
Levox calls "Unstoppable" their best album yet. He says while the band is high on the perch of country's elite, they want to make sure they don't get complacent in their position.
"You dream about this position as a kid, and I think we work harder every day just to continue to grow, and do what we love to do," he says. "We always keep striving to do better and be the best, because at the end of the day, it's all about the careers that we've made for ourselves. We've got the greatest jobs in the world — we get to touch people's lives through music."