There's something poetic about Rascal Flatts' turn-back-time single "Rewind" returning them to the top of the charts. The song reached Number One on the Mediabase Country Singles chart back in May, the first such milestone for the trio since 2012's "Banjo." Singer Gary LeVox, guitarist Joe Don Rooney and bass player Jay DeMarcus admit they were worried about their almost two-year drought of hits. The follow-up singles to "Banjo," "Come Wake Me Up" and "Changed," stalled at Numbers 4 and 20 respectively on Billboard's Country Airplay chart.
"I don't know if it was make or break, but it was definitely leaning more toward 'need to make,'" Rooney told Rolling Stone Country after the group celebrated the success of "Rewind" at a Number One party Wednesday afternoon at Nashville's ASCAP building on Music Row. "Spending that much time away from radio is scary. Not having a hit song on the Top 10 or Top 5 on radio, that scared us a little bit, but also it pushed us in a corner to make us fight."
"'Changed' was the big eye-opener," adds LeVox of the sputtering song he co-wrote. "For me, it's the greatest song I've ever been a part of as a songwriter, but dying at 20 [on the charts] — we've never been in that position before. It was brand new to us. After that, we really took our time and said, obviously, it's time to find a different direction and go somewhere. It's time to push ourselves and expand."
The result was "Rewind," written by country radio magicians Chris DeStefano, Ashley Gorley and Eric Paslay and produced by Flatts with DeMarcus manning the board.
"There was a weight lifted off of our shoulders that we were still capable of putting out singles that could rise to the top of the charts," says DeMarcus of the song's chart prowess and, later, the Rewind album. "We're trying to be cautiously optimistic and set our expectations realistically to where they should be, but I really feel like we're on the verge of a renaissance. This is some of the best music we were able to do in recent years. We poured more of our energy into it, more of our spirits and souls, creatively, than we have the last five records, quite honestly."
Best known for their harmonies, the pop-country pioneers also possess a self-awareness seldom seen in acts that have achieved their level of success. As well as a thick skin. From the beginning, the band has had to bat away insults about being a Nashville "boy band" and have even been used to goose more traditional-sounding country artists into bashing them and pop country.
"I was talking to somebody in an interview, and they were like, 'What do you think of Rascal Flatts?'" Sturgill Simpson related to Rolling Stone Country during an interview last month. "I was like, I don’t really fucking know… all I know is what I see in the papers. I said, 'They ponied up 4 million dollars to rebuild a children’s wing at Vandy [Vanderbilt Children's Hospital]. So what do you want me to do, talk negative about these guys?' Are you kidding me?"
With "Rewind" validating Rascal Flatts as still viable hit-makers, the trio is looking ahead to new single "Payback," a guitar-heavy jam produced by rock producer Howard Benson (Halestorm, Daughtry).
"It was so fun to record guitars with Howard Benson. We learned a lot from him," says Rooney of the "Payback" session. "We thought there was something really cool and different about that song. It's got such a good rock background, hip-hoppy countriness to it. It's a great hybrid of what Rascal Flatts can do, where we're at, where we're going."
Despite being bolstered by their momentum, the guys never miss an opportunity to crack a self-deprecating joke.
"'Payback' has been out two weeks. It's actually already died at 50," jokes DeMarcus, "so we're now going back to the drawing board."
Rooney laughs. "Yeah, we're going to put out 'Changed' again."