Seeing Beyond What You Know
Rascal Flatts Goes Down to the River
They make it so easy, They really do. The hair, the high Wal-Mart bling, the bad jokes. Rascal Flatts, the pop-leaning country trio whose songs have spoken to some of the better places in the soul of the flyover, have been a walking straight line since they appeared in all their post-boy band glory over a decade ago.
Like I said: it’s so easy. Easy to mock, to skewer, to eye roll.
And when that Rodney Dangerfield reality seemed to wrap itself around them like kudzu, they fought back with stats, with billboards, buses, benches and fist-thumping mailers. It was ubiquitous – and so over the top, people missed the biggest point of that assault, too: the facts were enormous. Indeed, for a couple years, Rascal Flatts was the biggest selling musical act in any genre.
Sad thing is, somewhere in the onslaught and the smirking, the obvious got lost: the music.
See, Rascal Flatts isn’t for everyone – especially not people who’re cool. The hipocracy ain’t buying. Even those who might, won’t -- for fear of being sneered at. And then, there’s everyone else.
There’s a whole lot of everyone else. Which is how they amassed the impressive list of facts’n’stats they proceeded to bludgeon Music Row with like a baby seal – realizing too late the lifeless carcass on the ground was the good will the industry should’ve had for the three men who do more charity work, engage on a real level when they meet their fans, had the biggest selling album a couple different years – only to wonder why they get no respect.
Truth is sometimes people should see beyond what they’re so sure they know. Look to what they see without thinking about it. Embrace things inside themselves that are reflected in what Rascal Flatts represents to those fans.
If you can get there, you’ll be richer for it. That’s the irony.
But the getting there, that’s tricky.
Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney are a lot like us. Two Columbus kids and a boy from Oklahoma. They had big dreams they didn’t quite know how to get to. They banged around a music business not so intent on showing them how, either. After stints in people’s bands, collapsed Christian deals, day jobs in half-way houses for the mentally challenged – they got their shot.
And like a lotta kids who didn’t know, they listened to the experts. They followed their own fly-over instincts. They were dough to be formed – then suddenly, it was working. Then it was really working. Then it was on its way to being as big as it can get.
They opened for Toby Keith, then Brooks & Dunn, then Kenny Chesney. No rush to headline, rather to build the connection. Have the hits. Let people sort out what the group meant to them.
They also weathered the jokes, took the punches, pretended it didn’t matter. Just like the boy who will endure anything to get the girl to go out with him. He knows what he’s made of, and he knows if he can get her to sees, she’ll get it.
That’s the joke: the people got it.
Once Gerry House, the morning czar of Nashville radio, started playing “I’m Moving On,” a nerve was struck. A song about how hard it is to face the damage, to pick up one’s pieces, to let go of what can’t be – and in all of that, to find the freedom of beginning a new life.
Suddenly, the boy band was meaningful. At least in their songs. Like Garth Brooks with “The Dance,” a radio act found meaning – and meaning made them matter. Especially to 12 Step adherents, broken hearteds and anyone who’s life had ever blown up.
We’ve all been there, but no one was as believable telling our truth as Gary LeVox over that quiet track and that deep river of regret being crossed over. No matter how young or how old, LeVox knew how it was; his voice an arm around the shoulder of the listener, acknowledging, encouraging, witnessing to his own busted places and resolve and making people believe over the chorus of 3 minutes.
Making people believe, especially when they doubt themselves, is tricky business.
“I’m Moving On” did that. Hard.
And that wasn’t the only trick up their sleeve. Rascal Flatts was able to get people to touch the place in their hearts where love truly exists: the silly things that ignite it, the way once simmering it never truly extinguishes and even damps down the things that would erode faith in what is.
“These Days” found a random run-in with an old love both a discovery and a confession to self. “Fast Cars & Freedom” assuaged every woman’s faltering place that aging is eroding her appeal, even as it remembers when love was new and young and exciting. “My Wish” and “Stand” were the kind of best friend encouragement that comes when no one else seems to notice how bad it feels, encouragement that can make the difference. “Take Me There” demonstrated the willingness to go deeper into another, to celebrate the details no one cares about and “What Hurts the Most” surrenders to the pain of knowing.
On some levels, completely pedestrian. But more importantly, so true.
John Prine once said, “They’re clichés for a reason.”
John Prine – beyond being an iconic American singer/songwriter – is a very wise man.
Sitting on the grass at Cleveland, Ohio’s Blossom Music Center with a friend and his three sons, who’d come for Taylor Swift, years ago, we both marveled because the excitement among the fans was palpable. He is a rocker, did a stint in the Rave-Ups, works for big rock manufacturing companies. We smiled at each other ‘cause a common thread in our conversations is how much music can make life mean.
It is the thing, especially for people whose lives don’t lean towards introspection, that can clarify and enliven their emotional truth. They couldn’t say what you just read, but they realize that’s how they feel when they hear it struck straight on and honestly – and in that recognition, they can bond with the people they care about on a deeper level.
Especially the not cool, who are just fine. And they’re not losers, understand. They’re normal people, growing up, falling in love, getting scraped and dinged on the way to their life. It’s not profound, but it’s everything.
My friend the rocker felt it, too. “This is what it feels like when it means something.”
A guy I grew up with is on his second marriage, has a stepson caught between selfish and selfless. He’s a rock guy, too. Can’t understand what I do for a living. We were talking about the way the boy shuts down, wounded by the fighting, the expectation of the one parent he deny the other – and in his frustration and anger, alienation and teen angst, it’s hard to get through.
“But you know… the way I can tell what’s going on… is Rascal Flatts,” he confesses, flabbergasted. “I get nothing about them… think the music is wimpy, and yet it’s become the lifeline to my stepson, who’s other music is this hard, intense rock that’s assaultive. He won’t tell me what he’s feeling, but I know by those damned Rascal Flatts songs…”
His self-loathing to be clinging to the hillbilly bedazzlers for insight is clear. But it’s the gratitude for the bridge of understanding that speaks louder.
It’s not that my friend will ever forgive me for abandoning a life of Neil Young and Edie Brickell, hair metal bands and funk for the 6-1-5. But in an odd way, he can talk to me about something only his son understands, something that matters to him in profound ways.
And there’s Liz. A pretty blond, all of 24 years old, she’s managing a high end store in a mall. Successful, poised, more than paying the bills, and somehow still hanging onto her dream – of singing torch/jazz songs that crawl into dark places to let the pain rise. She sells those handbags every day, and she sifts through songs looking for the ones that she can make her own.
She remembers how it felt to be 14 years old, how “Bless The Broken Road” was the song that bound her to her friends, carried her over the detours and disappointments growing up entails. She can still taste that last bit of innocence, the hope that was resilient and the notion that somewhere out there was everything she needed – and that she and her friends would get there.
When she was a kid, Rascal Flatts was all there was. Now grown, she remembers that songs can get you by. She can hang into that faith even as she learns it’s not always so simple, but with faith, it can be. She isn’t putting up her dreams, because she knows what can happen.
Then there’s me. Jaded beyond measure. Not quite three decades at the highest elevations the music business offers, having run off with the circus as a college girl writing her way through the University of Miami for Trouser Press, Tower Pulse, Rockbill, Performance, Billboard, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Rock & Soul, The Miami Herald. I was a kid raised inside songs -- showing me what the world around me failed to reveal.
Now stunned by the lack of caring about what these songs can mean. Still a true believe in the power of what people draw from the music, but never sure why the gatekeepers refuse to believe these songs define lives, offer solace, inflame hearts – and watermark lives. There is something more to it than just one more great big hit.
Rascal Flatts get it. They realize those average kids amass into something so much greater.
To look out across the audience is to understand the best of what young America can be.
It’s why once, maybe twice a year, I make my way to their shows: hating the production, the silly jokes, the post-modern synthesis of the worst aspects of everything I loathe: Journey & REO Speedwagon, Styx, Warrant, Air Supply.
No, I come to believe, have my truth validated and remember how powerful that one song can be. Looking into shining faces brightening when they hear “The Broken Road,” “These Days” or “Fast Cars & Freedom” tells me it isn’t me… isn’t imagined… isn’t something to treat like bad machined plastic junk from China.
Standing by the river behind Cincinnati’s Riverbend Amphitheatre, you can watch all the boats anchored to listen to the show. Their lights twinkle and people stand on the decks with their friends, some swim, others sit in the bow. It’s that memory being made – even just listening to the Flatts play.
And play they do. Covered in sweat, video screens filled with images ranging from blunt force obvious to abstractions to set a tone, the three men sing, prowl the stage, make a lot of eye contact. They understand that the audience has come certainly to see them, to hear the songs, but also to be seen by the trio… if not looked in the eye, then to be recognized as the mass of bodies on the grass who inhabit the songs every single day of their lives.
The Flatts get that. There’s a sense of the exchange being played out, but mostly, it seems to be about giving. No matter what or how, they are here to give these songs back to the people who live inside them – in their cars and trucks, their work, their home. It is where the songs are most alive.
Rascal Flatts, like their fans, probably couldn’t articulate that reality. They do what they do; they might not know why. But they keep coming, keep believing in something more than just the money… You can tell by the way this renewed version – fresh from their label being closed and a major management change – is so clear-eyed and leaning into the songs.
They want it to mean something. If not for acclaim, they surrendered that hope long ago… If not for industry recognition, though I’d arrived on a bus of “industry insiders,” shuttled to Cincinnati to be shown what people in Nashville choose not to see… though even that isn’t driving them.
It’s those faces. Shiny. Bright. Hopeful. Fourteen years old, no idea what life is – and 45, working most likely on the second divorce and a promise of a fairy tale love that just mocks them. Male, female, kid, teen, 20-something, grown-up. All of them drenched in the sweat of a record-setting heat front and looking to remember all the things that let them believe in hope.
Hope is everything. It gets you through the valleys and drives you on when things start going your way. It’s that one look that could be something more… The third date where you realize… The promotion or bonus you didn’t see coming… The way a hand slipping into your’s at the right time changes everything… The strength when the news isn’t good to be brave and try to find the love in the devastation…
Real life works like that: trickles and fizzles. Rarely any kind of movie moment – to the good or bad. And in that, those who aren’t punch drunk on the flossy, glossy promise of a life no one, not even the most famous, really ever live, find their sustenance.
And so, Rascal Flatts endure being punchlines – and bring to life the best an awful lot of people hope, live and dream of. What’s funny about that, beyond bad clothes and worse hair, I can’t quite remember.