If there’s any group that could use a “Rewind” right now, it’s Rascal Flatts.
My last deep dive on Joe Nichols generated a couple of good candidates for whose fading career to examine next, and while Nick’s suggestion of Alabama will make for an interesting study a bit later (don’t worry, we’ll get to them), I decided to start with Sam Wilson’s suggestion about country music’s first modern boy band:
Rascal Flatts was one of the hottest things going in country music not so long ago, but like most aging artists, their output has slowly gotten less and less popular over time. A quick scan of their discography, however, shows a surprisingly divisive split between their first and second decades of work:
|No. 1 Songs||10||4|
|Top Ten Songs||22||9|
|Songs #20 or Below||0||4|
Not only is the group releasing material at roughly half its original rate, but their success rate with that material is much lower. It begs the question: What happened when the calendar flipped?
The answer boils down to three things that broke in RF’s favor in their first decade, but turned against them in their second.
Issue #1: Label Support
The presence or absence of sufficient label support can be a huge factor in whether or not a new act flourishes or flounders. In a few of my previous deep dives, we focused on the latter of the two possibilities, finding that early label instability put some acts at a major disadvantage. Some acts were more successful at overcoming that early adversity than others, but it impacted all of the artists is some form.
The presence of such support (and even further, the opportunities for cross-promotion and reaching a wider audience) is something we haven’t examined much yet (which makes sense given that the series looks at what went wrong with careers, not what went right), and Rascal Flatts struck gold in that regard. The group debuted in 2000 as a newly-minted member of Lyric Street Records, which itself had been formed in 1997 as a division of Hollywood Records, a subsidiary the Disney Music Group, and immediately became the face of the label behind the success of their debut single “Prayin’ For Daylight.” With the financial and marketing muscle of the House of Mouse behind them, the trio put their first fourteen singles into the Top Ten, capped off by 2006’s “What Hurts The Most,” which went where few country singles trod and reached #6 on the Hot 100 (which, as one of my Splatoon cohorts remarked, means he’ll be listening to the song at his local grocery store ad infinitum).
So what song broke this incredible streak? I’m glad you asked…
Despite only reaching #18 on Billboard’s country airplay chart, this song might be the best example of how being a Disney property could turn a solid group into an unforgettable legend: It landed a prime spot on the soundtrack for the animated movie Cars, a movie that grossed nearly half a billion dollars at the box office and earned nearly ten billion dollars in retail sales. Lightning McQueen and company were everywhere back in to mid/late 2000s, and they turned everything associated with the brand to gold. For Rascal Flatts, that meant another visit to the Hot 100 Top Ten (peaking at #7 this time) and another song to haunt you from invisible speakers at Walmart for the next thirty years. Even when the country airplay wasn’t there (and frankly, I still consider Chris LeDoux’s cover to be the superior version of the song), traveling down Route 66 with Owen Wilson and Larry The Cable Guy still had its perks.
Unfortunately, all good times come to an end, which in this case occurred when Lyric Street closed its doors in (wait for it) 2010. Disney Music Group Chairman Bob Cavallo cited “the changing nature of the music business and the more streamlined priorities of the [Disney] Studios,” which basically means that it was more profitable for Disney to be out of the music business than it was to be in it. Rascal Flatts quickly found a new home with Big Machine Records that year, but album sales quickly tapered off: 2010’s Nothing Like This managed to reach platinum status, 2012’s Changed only made it to gold, and nothing since has even managed to ship half a million units. There was a bit of a shakeup in the group’s sound as well, as Changed and Rewind drifted away from the Rascal Flatts’s pop-country sound and into dangerous Bro-Country territory (but we’ll talk about that a little later). After ten years of being the top dog at a well-funded, well-oiled machine, the trio was suddenly just another act on a label that had reportedly been hanging a “For Sale” sign in its window since 2011. Rascal Flatts’s success didn’t disappear the moment they joined Big Machine, but that’s about the point when it started drying up.
Issue #2: Competition (or lack thereof)
When Rascal Flatts arrived on the scene in 2000, there were already several successful groups operating out of Nashville, putting RF fairly low in the country music pecking order. Over the next five years, however, their competitors started falling off the pace one by one, opening the door for the new trio to make their move:
- Diamond Rio had already started to stumble as the year 2000 rolled around, and their last significant single “I Believe” came out in 2002.
- Lonestar stretched their soccer-mom success out for a few more years, but after their last #1 “Mr. Mom” in 2004, they ceased to be a major player on the airwaves.
- The Dixie Chicks’s career was famously derailed in 2003 after the group was blackballed from country radio following lead singer Natalie Maines’s critical comments about the Iraq War and then-President George W. Bush.
- SHeDAISY showed some early promise in 1999 and 2000, but was never able to build on it and become a major player in the genre.
- Emerson Drive showed a bit of promise in 2001 and 2002, but aside from 2006’s “Moments,” they never lived up to it.
- Sugarland made a big splash when they arrived in 2004, but the quick departure of Kristen Hall (the circumstances of which still seem to be a bit hazy) brought the group down to a duo and kept them from crowding Rascal Flatts’s turf.
The result? When it came to critical acclaim, no one could touch Rascal Flatts in the 2000s:
|Vocal Group Of The Year|
|2000||Dixie Chicks||Dixie Chicks|
|2002||Dixie Chicks||Rascal Flatts|
|2003||Rascal Flatts||Rascal Flatts|
|2004||Rascal Flatts||Rascal Flatts|
|2005||Rascal Flatts||Rascal Flatts|
|2006||Rascal Flatts||Rascal Flatts|
|2007||Rascal Flatts||Rascal Flatts|
|2008||Rascal Flatts||Rascal Flatts|
Things changed in the late 2000s, however, thanks primarily to two groups:
|Vocal Group Of The Year|
|2009-2011||Lady Antebellum||Lady Antebellum|
|2012||Little Big Town||Little Big Town|
|2013||Little Big Town||The Band Perry|
|2013-2017||Little Big Town||Little Big Town|
|2018||Old Dominion||Old Dominion|
We’ve already discussed the dynamic between Lady A and LBT, but both groups were a major threat to Rascal Flatts’s dominance as a country group, and they unceremoniously booted the trio off of the awards stage. The brief-but-bright flame that was The Band Perry back in the early 2010s also can’t be discounted, and even The Zac Brown Band (who showed up with “Chicken Fried” in 2008) had enough success to start crowding RF’s fiefdom. Finally, while we’ll see how history treats Old Dominion in the future, they’re currently an act on the rise that’s poised to hold the group crown for a while.
There’s one more group we need to mention: Even though I’ve mostly discounted duos from this analysis, it’s hard not to notice just how similar Dan + Shay sounds to Rascal Flatts (Shay Mooney is basically a clone of RF lead singer Gary LeVox), or how Rascal Flatts’s last short taste of radio success in 2017 came right about the time Dan + Shay really starting catching fire in the genre.
Quite simply, as Garth Brooks perfectly put it, “the competition’s gettin’ younger,” and Rascal Flatts faced a lot more of it in their second decade than in their first.
Issue #3: Bro-Country (again)
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Time and again, we find that the Metro-Bro era that defined the 2010s completely changed the career trajectories of everyone who live through it, and Rascal Flatts is no different.
In the 2000s, Rascal Flatts was a textbook example of a pop-country bands: Lighthearted or emotional subject matter, slick yet traditional instrumentation, and a knack for the occasional big, overproduced ballad (think “What Hurts The Most”). It was definitely a pop-flavored sound, but it was mostly inoffensive and tracked well with country music’s push towards modernity. This sound is mostly still intact on 2010’s Nothing Like This, but some of the singles from Changed and Rewind have a distinctly different flavor: The simplistic, party-heavy, rapid-fire lyrics, the synthetic instruments and guitar-and-drum-heavy (don’t forget the token “Banjo”) mixes, and so on. (It’s not hard to imagine Big Machine, given the group’s limited tenure and the label’s precarious position, pushing the group to update their sound to something more trendy.)
Like Joe Nichols, however, this doesn’t seem to be a wholehearted embrace of Bro-Country: “Come Wake Me Up,” for example, sounds like a pretty conventional piano ballad, and the fiddle still appears on songs like “Riot.” Later singles like “I Like The Sound Of That” and “Yours If You Want It” pivot even closer to that old RF sound. While it seems that the most-popular songs of this era appear to be the ones that most conform to the prominent trends of the era, the stain left by the Bro-Country and Metropolitan eras is a lot smaller on Rascal Flatts than other artists. It’s there, but for the most part, the group muddled through the decade while watching others claim the crown that they held for so long.
So what brought down Rascal Flatts’s once-high-flying career? In a word, it was change: Changing times, changing tastes, changing labels, and changing challengers. Had groups like Lady Antebellum not burst onto the scene, and acts like Florida Georgia Line not fundamentally altered the sonic landscape of country music, I honestly believe Rascal Flatts could have had a second decade of success much like their first. They had pivoted from being a boy band to filling a Lonestar-esque role of substance, their classic sound would have fit in well with any era besides the 2010s, and if Dan + Shay have proved anything, they’ve shown that there’s still a market for a voice like Levox’s.
A few changes probably could have been handled, but the combination of all the issues that befell the group within a few short years was really what sealed their fate. They won’t go away quietly, but they will eventually go away, and it’s really hard to say if history will give them the credit they deserve for the success they had.
Sheryl Crow might believe that “a change would do you good,” but Rascal Flatts knows that like anything, too much change can do a number on your musical career.