"Rewind?" ... How About "Reload?"
May 16, 2014
I've been to a lot of album launches in my time, but never one like the Tuesday, May 13th event, which combined a sampling of Rascal Flatts' bold and deeply textured 2014 vintage "Rewind" release with an equally stylish, finely-tuned Pino Noir, Pettit Verdot and 11 other hard-to-pronounce wine selections. I mean, just the concept of pairing fine wine and great Country music seems fairly complex, with underlying acidity.
Nevertheless, such was the case earlier this week while hearing Rascal Flatts' ninth studio offering for the first time at a club called Avalon in Hollywood.
A fine wine - or in this case, 13 amazing Robert Hendry selections - is generally wasted on a Neanderthal like me. I'm more what you'd call "a beer guy." Knowing what that implies -- manly men collectively appreciating a beverage also referred to as brew -- I've recently begun proclaiming myself a "Craft Beer" aficionado, an aspirational but so far hopeless attempt to up my game, culturally speaking.
Rascal Flatts, on the other hand, have no credibility issues, having compiled an impressive musical resume during the past 14 years on every measurable level: sales, chart position and touring. 2006 was an especially amazing, or should I say "freakin' awesome," year for the band, with Nielsen Soundscan figures listing them the year's top selling artists (five million physical sales) thanks to the "Me And My Gang" album, which yielded two #1 songs ("What Hurts The Most" and "My Wish") and touring revenue listed at close to $50 million.
That was a watermark year in a career that's been consistent and wildly successful from the get-go, when they burst on the scene with a debut single, "Prayin' For Daylight" in early 2000. But even though the latest album and lead single are titled, "Rewind," I don't hear Gary LeVox, Joe Don Rooney and Jay Demarcus looking back much.
The new album has 13 cuts, so that when one is slurping down a different wine with each song, the music can literally become intoxicating. As Gary quipped Tuesday night, "Thank God they didn't play the deluxe version."
Interestingly -- to me, anyway -- two of the cuts are co-written by Shay Mooney, half of the new and talented duo, Dan + Shay. It's no secret those guys were heavily influenced by Rascal Flatts (Um, have you listened to their debut CD?). I've heard some conversation since the debut of Dan + Shay, that they have seized radio's playlist slot for the kind of music Rascal Flatts made famous in this format.
But as Lee Corso says on ESPN's "College Gameday" every Saturday in the fall, "Not so fast, my friend!" We might just be living in a world where Rascal Flatts AND Dan + Shay can survive and thrive on Country radio, which isn't a bad thing. With programmers' threshold for new, inbound "Bro-Country" titles near capacity and a growing number of rap-influenced songs still finding their way on Country radio, suddenly a pop-Country sound provided by Flatts and/or Dan + Shay is a comfortable middle lane providing some much needed musical ballast right now. It's also what many female listeners have been craving recently and something that always served this format well.
The lead single and title cut, "Rewind," is on its way to # 1 as of this writing and features what can only be described as a "funky" guitar intro. The song was co-written by Eric Paslay, one of the hottest pens in Nashville and a guy who currently has an excellent debut album of his own that you should check out as soon as possible. Oh, and if you like the open to "Rewind," you'll also dig the first few licks on cut #5, the driving "Powerful Stuff," which, not coincidentally, is.
That's a standout song for me, as are the next two: "Riot" has a deceptive title; instead of an aggressive, rockin' sound, this is an understated yet still powerful tune about desperately trying to salvage a relationship. "Night Of Our Lives" is a story song about "innocence and butterflies" both left behind on one memorable evening. And didn't we all have at least one of those, back in the day?
Every solid album has a sweet spot; these three tunes are where the bat meets the ball on this one. I've listened all the way through the CD seven times in two days now and reverting to my former days as a PD who thought he was an A&R guy, one of these three has surely got to be a single. Right, Big Machine brain trust?
Following the wine-tasting/album-sampling, Flatts played a five-song, enhanced acoustic set with a Q&A session in between each tune. I was privileged to host this portion of the night and pleased (though not surprised) to find these guys have not changed in the 14 years I have known them. They're still humble, genuinely nice people and have a terrific, self-effacing sense of humor about things. Jay Demarcus has a Cheshire Cat -- dare I say, "shit-eatin'-- grin." I have never detected when he's serious or not, but I don't care; he's funny as hell.
I asked how Gary and Joe Don felt about Jay serving as producer for several cuts on the new album. Was he a difficult taskmaster? "No," said Gary. "It was actually great because he worked for free."
Proceeds from the evening, which was attended by some industry and mostly fans, went toward Rascal Flatts' favorite charity, the Monroe Carrell Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. Most people know about the band's hugely successful career, the stats of which I shared above. What many don't know is that Gary, Joe Don and Jay have quietly raised more than $3 million for the hospital over the years and have a pediatric surgery center there, named after the band.
Yes, the guys are self-effacing and hilariously sarcastic, but hearing Joe Don, on stage talking about why helping kids get proper medical care remains important to them was a moment reminding us these are thoughtful people as well.
After playing three new songs from the album, Flatts went into their catalog for 2004's Grammy winning "Bless The Broken Road," which has become a signature song for them and was pivotal in elevating them to superstardom.
Before singing it, Gary shared the song's back story, telling the crowd how the song kicked around for 11 years and was recorded twice before they cut it. Then the band nailed it live, with help from a spontaneous sing-along from the audience.
Finally, a real-life rewind from Flatts. They played Shenandoah's 1989 hit, "The Church On Cumberland Road," a song which also holds special meaning. Before they became Rascal Flatts, Gary and Jay were playing a small club in Nashville's Printers Alley back in 1999; they met Joe Don one night, he jumped in on "Church On Cumberland Road," a band was formed and well, here we are.
Speaking of history, the venue for this unique evening was The Avalon, which some of us from LA always knew as "The Palace." In Hollywood, directly across the street from the famous and eternally cool Capitol Records tower, this 76-year-old, Art-Deco era facility provides a magical, intangible quality that helps make a night of live music extraordinary. That quality is something I call "a vibe" and the Avalon provides that in spades. During its history, the venue has hosted monumentally famous performers that run the gamut from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland to Prince, The Clash and Lord only knows how many other huge Rock acts in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Okay, so after a Hollywood night with Rascal Flatts, 13 wines, a few hundred people, one David Spade sighting and two days with the new album, what's my bottom line takeaway on "Rewind?" Hell, they could have easily titled it, "Reload." Or, since the launch event was wine-themed, let me put it this way: "Rewind" flows across the palate with gorgeous depth and richness. Highly extroverted, it's clear this band has reached full maturity and should age effortlessly for seven to eight more years. I've always been a fan, but this is flat-out Flatts' best work in years. And trust me, that's not the wine talking.