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Rascal Flatts: You can leave your hat off

Walk of Fame Honors: Rascal Flatts

A few weeks ago, Rascal Flatts played a show on a smaller stage than usual, allowing Jay DeMarcus, Gary LeVox and Joe Don Rooney a different vantage point.

“The band was really tucked in around behind us. We were forced to be closer than we ever are. We were firing on all cylinders, hitting every note,” bassist DeMarcus says. “I looked over my shoulder and I saw Gary and Joe Don and I had this thought, ‘Man, this is incredible. This is why I do this.’ And I had a moment of sadness; I can’t imagine the last night I’ll stand on stage with these guys, the day we call it quits.”

Luckily, that day is likely far away. Twelve years into their career, Rascal Flatts remains one of country music’s most popular acts, and recently celebrated its 14th No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Songs chart with “Banjo.” The trio has sold more than 21 million albums and 25 million digital downloads.

Rascal Flatts receives its star today on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star was originally announced in 2010, but the fact that it took almost two years in the five-year allotted window to schedule a time for the unveiling is a testament to how busy Rascal Flatts remains.

“It took us this long to get it in our schedule and we also wanted certain people there at the ceremony,” DeMarcus says.

The band has been on a non-stop upward trajectory since the release of its first single, “Prayin’ for Daylight,” which hit No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart in 2000. The trio, signed to Disney’s Lyric Street Records, heard it on the radio for the first time as they traveled across the country by bus on a promotional tour. The DJ told fans to call in to vote whether the song was a hit or a miss. “The first caller said ‘I like it’,” DeMarcus recalls. “The next two said they didn’t like it at all. ‘It’s horrible.'” Luckily the majority of the remaining callers gave it a thumb’s up. “We were hoping against hope that we’d just get to release another single,” he laughs.

With their layered harmonies, country-pop melodies, and lack of cowboy hats, Rascal Flatts got branded as boy band in its early days. “People would say, ‘Why are you guys in country music? You look like you’re in the Backstreet Boys.’ We took so much heat,” DeMarcus recalls. “We always said, ‘It’s not about hats and Wrangler Jeans. It’s about a state of mind. Country is in our souls.”

The upside was that Rascal Flatts’ musical blend brought a younger demo to country music long before Taylor Swift was credited with doing so. “We were bringing a different twist to country music,” DeMarcus says. “We were so influenced not only by country music, but by the rock bands of the ’80s. Our focus was to bring in something different. Country music already had a George Strait and Alabama. We wanted to put some pop music in our show.”

DeMarcus remembers the first time the band members felt they could breathe a little easier. “It was in 2001. We were on the Toby Keith tour. We’d released ‘I’m Movin’ On.’ That song sold 500,000 (albums) for us. We went from barely selling gold on the first three singles to going over a million. We really felt the momentum shift and take it to another gear.”

In concert, “We’d get to ‘I’m Movin’ On’ and you could see the whole crowd singing along. It’s something I’ll never forget,” DeMarcus says.

The high marks kept coming, cresting in 2006 with the group’s fourth studio album, “Me and My Gang.” The title spent 15 weeks atop the Billboard Country Albums chart and was the top selling album of the year behind “High School Musical.” The album also featured “What Hurts the Most,” which topped both the country and adult contemporary charts. “Because it was such a hit at country radio first and then bled over into the pop world, it felt like the industry was behind us and really happy for us,” DeMarcus says.

As the band’s record sales rose, so did the audience for Rascal Flatts’ high-energy live show. The group became the first country act to play Chicago’s Wrigley Field, drawing 43,000 to its 2009 show.

“The live show is the most important element of what we do,” DeMarcus says. “We’re face to face with the people who allow us to do what we do. We want to take them on a journey and give them a moment to escape real life and live in a fantasy world.”

As a result, Rascal Flatts has developed zealous fans, known as Flattheads, some of whom have gone to extraordinary lengths to show their support.

“We were coming through the meet and greet” at a concert, DeMarcus recalls, “and you could tell this woman was getting ready to bust, to have her baby. She was jumping up and down. Her husband said she was supposed to have her C-section that day, but she’d pushed it back to after the concert. I think you have to be a little crazy to do something like that.”

Another chapter opened for the band in 2010. Lyric Street shut down, leaving Rascal Flatts temporarily homeless and with one album left in its deal. Big Machine and Disney worked out a deal for that one album and now the band is signed to Big Machine proper, with plans to extend its contract with the label.

“I saw a great band that suddenly had the rug pulled out from underneath them,” says Big Machine label group president-CEO Scott Borchetta. “I felt they needed a new home that could provide an arena for them to do their best work for the next 10 years. Their enduring appeal is their incredible musicianship and song sense. There is no one better in either category.”

As the shift occurred, Rascal Flatts, which joined the Grand Ole Opry last year, also did some housecleaning, changing management.

“We needed an infusion of some new energy. The move to Big Machine ended up being one of the best things ever for us,” DeMarcus says.

Looking back at the turmoil, which DeMarcus says, “reset the start button” for the band, Rascal Flatts stands poised to soar to the next level and branch out, including launching its own line of themed restaurants (the first of which is slated to open in Phoenix in 2013).

After winning numerous awards, DeMarcus admits there’s one prize that has eluded them: an entertainer of the year trophy from the Academy of Country Music or from the Country Music Assn.

“We’d love to capture (that),” he says. “We want to try and find ways that make us worthy in voters’ minds to at least nominate us. That’s the next goal.”

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