By DEBORA SHAULIS
irst time Joe Don Rooney heard the Dixie Chicks on the radio, he was taken by surprise. That was in 1997, and Rooney was living in Oklahoma.
"I remember thinking, now here's a trio of girls who are incredible. They should come out with a trio of boys," Rooney said.
No new male trio emerged that year, nor the following year, nor by the time Rooney moved to Nashville in early 1999. That mystified him: "I figured some labels would have jumped on it quicker," he said.
Rooney didn't know it then, but luck was on his side. Later in 1999 he met Jay DeMarcus and Gary LeVox, musicians and second cousins, both from Columbus. Today the three of them constitute Rascal Flatts, the very trio that Rooney had anticipated out of the country music industry.
Comparisons: Rascal Flatts bears at least a few comparisons to the hot female trios of today. Like the Dixie Chicks and SheDaisy, DeMarcus, LeVox and Rooney are easy on the eyes. Also, Rascal Flatts straddles the line between new, rock-influenced country music and traditional C & amp;W.
With all due respect to traditional country, Rooney believes the music must evolve.
"Country music will always change," said Rooney, who sings high harmony and plays guitar. "You can't keep it sounding the same and bring new people into country music. Rock 'n' roll hasn't done that."
Listen to Rascal Flatts and you hear numerous musical elements -- country, rock, pop and gospel among them.
"I think we have kind of a bluegrassy sound between the three of our voices," Rooney said, noting how Rascal Flatts identifies with the music of Diamond Rio and Shenandoah.
The amalgamation of styles reflects their upbringings. "Jay and Gary being cousins, they had the same influences," Rooney said. Music-making was their family's passion. "My life was the same way. My parents were also musicians.
"Connection: The trio's sound came together somewhat accidentally, Rooney said. That also explains how he met DeMarcus and LeVox.
Rooney performed at Grand Lake Opry -- Grove, Oklahoma's version of Grand Ole Opry -- with his eye on a move to Nashville. "I always wanted to live there but was scared to death," he said.
It was a combination of knowing how many of his idols lived and worked in Nashville and how many more people couldn't get a break. The level of talent in Nashville is "flat scary," he said.Then, in fall 1998, Rooney met Preston Stanfill, drummer in Chely Wright's band. They became friends but never discussed working together until December 1998. After learning that Wright's lead guitarist was leaving, Stanfill encouraged Rooney to audition.
Stanfill called Rooney in Oklahoma at Christmas to tell him that Wright wanted to meet him the next day. By January he was rehearsing with the band for a new tour.
DeMarcus also joined Wright's band. One night, when he and his cousin needed a guitarist to fill in at a gig at Printers Alley in Nashville, DeMarcus called Rooney."We just locked in immediately. We had so much fun, they asked me the next day to join them," Rooney said.
Things moved quickly from there. By September 1999 Rascal Flatts was signed to Lyric Street Records (an affiliate of The Disney Co.).
Goals: The band achieved its first goal -- to win an award for its first album -- when it was named Best New Group at the 36th Academy of Country Music awards in May.
Its second goal, a gold album, was about 45,000 units within reach the day Rooney was interviewed.That leaves just one other goal for Rascal Flatts: to "kick butt at every live show we do," he said.
Rascal Flatts will begin to record its second album in December. The first single should be released in April, and the album should be in stores by next June, Rooney said.