There was never any doubt about what Rascal Flatts would call its latest record, “Changed,” which charged to the top of the country charts in April to become the trio’s seventh No. 1 album.
That’s because over the last two years the group has experienced a run of significant changes after many years of rock-solid stability, which has included selling nearly 22 million physical copies and more than 25 million downloads of its 14 albums.
But in 2010 the band’s label, Lyric Street, suddenly shut its doors. Then Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney severed ties with their longtime management team, leading to a lawsuit. In the middle of the upheaval, the three men had a heart-to-heart talk at DeMarcus’ house, and at one point the idea of retiring was even on the table.
“We didn’t have a record label, and we were switching managers, so we really had a clean slate, and we were looking at options,” LeVox said. “So it was, let’s look at long-term goals and see what we feel like we still have to offer. And have we done everything we wanted to do?
“So the question was asked, but it was a real quick decision about what we wanted to do. We wanted to continue on. We’re still having too much fun.”
When the new album’s title track was pitched to them, the three friends jumped on it, connecting emotionally to the song’s theme. Although 2010’s “Nothing Like This” had come out on the group’s new label, Big Machine Records, it had been recorded for Lyric Street.
So “Changed” represented a fresh start, and the band’s current tour, which stops Saturday at the Kentucky State Fair, is a celebration of same.
“For sure,” LeVox said. “You feel like a new artist again. When you have a new season in your career, it fires you up. Everything’s exciting and high energy right now, and we’re just having a blast.”
Rascal Flatts came together in the late 1990s in Nashville. DeMarcus, who is LeVox’s second cousin, had been working there since 1992 as a sideman, producer and engineer. He persuaded LeVox, a native of Columbus, Ohio, to join him in 1997, and they began doing some studio and club work.
DeMarcus had met Rooney when the two of them worked in singer Chely Wright’s band, and invited him to sit in with DeMarcus and LeVox one night at the city’s famous Printer’s Alley nightclub. Something clicked, and the three began working together. Lyric Street signed them in 1999, and the band took off with its first album, “Rascal Flatts,” which had four hit singles and sold more than 2 million copies.
They haven’t slowed since. The band dominated the first decade of the 2000s, racking up 10 No. 1 singles and six No. 1 albums while winning a combined 12 vocal group of the year awards from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. “Changed” went to No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, and its first single, “Banjo,” also went to No. 1.
LeVox said that one of the band’s strengths is its closeness. He and DeMarcus are blood family, and Rooney may as well be another cousin. DeMarcus recently became a father for the second time, and when the “Changed” tour takes a break in a few weeks, they’ll all gather at his house for a baby party, LeVox said.
In the band’s early days, LeVox was the only one with children and had to learn how to juggle his family and professional lives, the latter of which sometimes kept him away from home for weeks. The two bachelors, meanwhile, often wanted to jump on opportunities but had to back down when they conflicted with birthdays at the LeVox house.
“My hat’s off to Jay and Joe Don, because I’d be like, ‘Look, I’m not missing Brittany’s birthday, so we’re gonna have to cancel those dates,’” LeVox said. “But they really get it now because they’re both fathers. They might not have liked it at the time, but now they go, ‘Dude, how in the world did you do it?’” LeVox said, laughing.
In the constantly changing music industry, the members of Rascal Flatts are now veterans watching the rise of acts such as Taylor Swift and The Band Perry, which performs at the fair next weekend. He sees that as a virtue.
“Being parents is part of it, but it’s just being more mature, being wiser, and honing our craft more,” he said. “Your wish is that you’ll get better in time, and I think we’ve definitely done that.”
Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160