Country Music

Modern Radio-Friendly Country Is Indebted to Rascal Flatts

It’s all too easy to take a shot at Rascal Flatts in 2015. What’s easily remembered is the frosted tips, v-neck T-shirts, dismal awards show performances, and saccharine, phoned-in singles of the mid-’00s, but what’s rarely mentioned is the Ohio-based group’s prototypical status in country pop, paving the way for the spit-and-polished sound that dominates radio today.

There’s a reason why their first seven records all went platinum, and it has nothing to do with a certain Mickey Mouse and his affiliates — the trio of Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney has been a Music Row powerhouse since their inception in 1999, right when Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” was dominating airwaves and collecting Grammys. True crossover-friendly pop-country went from the flavor of the week to the desired medium for Nashville-based songwriter’s circles, and Rascal Flatts was right there at the forefront. The band still maintains its relevance almost 16 years on.

Part of their success could be attributed to their impressive output in that timeframe — Rascal Flatts has released an album every two years, on average, with a choreographed radio single rollout following and preceding each in succession. While it’s no secret that radio is still an indispensable aspect of the country world, there are few artists that held popularity in the early ‘00s that command such spins today. Take a look at “Rewind” or “Riot,” which racks up serious regional airtime, or even “I Like The Sound of That,” which entered the market just two weeks ago and comes from an album that’s almost a year old. Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire might be able to fulfill those requirements, having greatly preceded Rascal Flatts’ pop reign, but McGraw and McEntire are both legends who made the modern transition from a much more down-home sound.

Rascal Flatts could be the first act that seems almost bred for modern pop country, however, swinging into the mix like a Top 40 wrecking ball. It would be all too easy to point the corporate boy-band formation finger had the act formed in any other way, but instead they’ve found a recipe for relevance that’s kept their name in the mouth of the mainstream market.

Is Rascal Flatts “true” country music? The lines have become so blurred and the pitchforks raised so high outside of today’s country stations that only two-stepping honky-tonk seems to be the only defined vestige of country music, a la Dale Watson, and stories have become so generalized that the likes of blindingly talented country songwriters like Jamey Johnson will never see a number-one hit. It’s a damn shame, but the watering down of anything that will spread the sermon of country music means that there’s more people out there who will take it upon themselves to dig deeper and explore country’s history and the legends that wrote it. In that sense, Rascal Flatts are country, even if just a vehicle for those green souls who will eventually find their way to the hickory-lined backroads of country music’s establishment.

Maybe that’s why they’ve become the go-to punching bag for both country fans and nonbelievers alike, but Rascal Flatts’ contribution to the current country landscape is indelible, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. It’s worth keeping in mind that before the Sam Hunts and Jason Aldeans of the world, Rascal Flatts wrote sugary hooks that were deemed too sticky-sweet for the jukebox crowd, yet it looks like they had the last laugh — so it goes when you’re the forerunner of a whole new wave of music. 

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Kristian C. Libman