Preview: Rascal Flatts brings a 'Banjo' to the party

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Having established itself as one of the poppiest of the pop-country bands, Rascal Flatts wasn't sure that a song called "Banjo," with an actual banjo solo in it, would be a No. 1 contender.

Sure enough, though, the first single from Rascal Flatts' latest album -- which tells listeners to "go-go-go till you hear a banjo" -- managed to be the band's 12th trip to the top of the country charts.

"I thought it could be something we haven't done before and be different," says guitarist Joe Don Rooney. "I didn't know the impact it would make. I knew we'd never cut anything like that before. I knew it was really fun and really up-tempo and something we needed in our live show.

Rascal Flatts

With: Little Big Town, Eli Young Band, Edens Edge.

Where: First Niagara Pavilion.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $31.50-$71.50; 1-800-745-3000.

"It ended up doing much better than we all thought. Everyone can relate to that song. It doesn't matter if you're from the city, from the country, if you listen to the lyrics, it's all about getting out of the hustle and bustle of the city craziness and the concrete jungle and getting out, maybe to the country, where you can be a little more free and breathe the fresh air and escape from life for a while."

The song will open Rascal Flatts' set when it appears at Saturday at the First Niagara Pavilion, offering fans an escape, perhaps not from the hustle-bustle, but at least from the city.

The trio, which formed in Nashville in 1999, played its first show in Burgettstown in 2002, opening for Toby Keith and returned with Brooks & Dunn a year later. In 2004, Rascal Flatts took over the headlining spot and has returned to pack the place just about every year since then.

This time it comes with Little Big Town, the Eli Young Band and Edens Edge for the "Changed Tour," which they are also referring to as "the all-band tour."

"We were going to call this 'The American Band Tour,' " Mr. Rooney says, "but we weren't able to do that because that band back in the day, Grand Funk Railroad, they had that song and the guy who wrote that song didn't want us to use it. They still tour under that tour name every year."

Following in the footsteps of an Alabama, Rascal Flatts -- which also features singer Gary LeVox and bassist Jay DeMarcus -- was able to make a name for itself in a genre dominated by solo artists. Most of the groups that have become popular since then have featured some mix of male and female singers, rather than trying to follow in the same vein.

"I think we were able to push the envelope in a way early on that made our niche more unique," Mr. Rooney says. "I think there have been bands that have come along like Lady Antebellum, they've tipped their hats to us several times when winning CMA and ACM awards. They've thanked Rascal Flatts before for what we've done and how we influenced them and the younger generation coming up.

"I think no one wants to copy what you've done. That's why all those bands are unique. Eric Church is very unique. We need all of them in the country format. It's easy to copy someone else or mimic what someone else does. I think that's when you shoot yourself in the foot. What's really good about country, where we're at right now, is there's really room for everybody. You've got Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, similar but yet different. The gunslinging country singers. You've got Rascal Flatts and Little Big Town. There's a vast difference between both bands. So it's cool to have this diversity in country music. There's more diversity than probably any other format."

Well, there's a pretty big range between, say Metallica and fun., but there's no need to debate all that right now ...

As for Rascal Flatts, the group has stayed pretty close to its formula of upbeat country-pop with arena-sized hooks and bright harmonies -- even with the recent, eighth studio album being titled "Changed." The name comes from the song written by Mr. LeVox with frequent collaborators Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley.

"It's the first song on the album and it's a wonderful song about a man who finds his faith again and is baptized, and that changes his life," Mr. Rooney says. "Probably about two, three months into the recording process of the album we got that song and it's very special. We started going, 'Wow, this could be the title of the album,' because we all went through a lot of change in our lives the past 12 years, through the business we've grown up, through Rascal Flatts, through our personal lives, all of us getting married and having babies now and the evolution of life. There was a lot of change going on in the Rascal Flatts world, and we thought it would be the perfect title for the tour, too. We're a changed band, we're evolving into what we're supposed to evolve into. We're still finding ourselves through that."

With Mr. DeMarcus and his wife welcoming a son in July, all three members of Rascal Flatts have two kids now. Mr. Rooney has a 4-year-old son, Jagger Donovan, and a nearly 3-year-old daughter, Raquel Blue (they call her "Rocky"), with wife Tiffany Fallon, the former Miss Georgia and 2005 Playmate of the Year. It makes going out on the road a little less free and easy.

"It's changed for the better," he says. "Having a family is an amazing blessing. It's still a trip to have them run across the floor. You see yourself in them. It's one of God's sweet gifts, for sure. Going on the road now and leaving the house is getting harder. Jagger is 4 now and he can sense when I'm about to leave. He sees the bags, and he's like 'Daddy, don't leave.' What do you say? You kind of crumble up like crackers on the floor, but it's like coming home is so special now. The good thing about Rascal Flatts is our schedule is not too crazy now. We're usually out for three days, four days, on the weekends and usually always back home in Nashville Monday through Wednesday, and I can veg out and hang with the babies."


Scott Mervis:; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.


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