Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts: "I Love Metal, Rock and Country — and I Like to Wrap It All Up Into One"
The Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 hit “Nashville Cats” pegged the city’s population of pickers at 1,352. Today, there’s a whole lot more, lured by Nashville’s booming country and rock industries and musician-friendly environment.
The cost of living is considerably lower than in New York and Los Angeles, and there are venues in every neighborhood. Nestled within each square mile are studios ranging from in-home operations like producer/guitarist Buddy Miller’s Dogtown to history-making enterprises like RCA Studio B, Ocean Way, Blackbird, Jack White’s Third Man and Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye.
Nashville so zealously lives up to its “Music City U.S.A.” moniker that young musicians with GIT- and Berklee-level chops arrive daily.
Fifteen years ago, Joe Don Rooney was one of those arrivals, a fresh-faced kid from small-town Oklahoma via small-town Arkansas, seeking his fortune in the post–Garth Brooks country boom that has now blown into a firestorm.
Since 1999, Rooney has helped fan those flames as a member of Rascal Flatts, whose eight albums have sold 20 million copies, put 35 songs on the pop charts and delivered more than 50 country singles, including 28 Top 10s. The group’s decade of number-ones spans 2002’s “These Days” to “Banjo” from last year’s Changed. All that has made Rooney and his Flatts-mates, bassist Jay DeMarcus and aptly named singer Gary LeVox, into superstars.
But there’s more to Guitar World’s newest columnist [See his three Rockin' the Country lesson videos here] than the sum of his hits. In a city full of monster guitarists, Rooney is a dragon slayer. Raised on everything from Merle Haggard to Mötley Crüe to Metallica, he is a living compendium of hot licks and fat tones. And he’s learned the tricks of applying them to a genre governed by the rules of lyrics-based song craft, even while bending those rules to sometimes-deranged angles.
Rooney revealed just how far he’s willing to go on Rascal Flatts’ last tour, where he played a Theremin that he controlled by moving his six-string’s body and blew the minds of fans accustomed to a very different kind of air guitar. For more evidence, listen to the crescendo of his band’s bravura “She’d Be California,” where he conjures up Pete Townshend, hair metal and hot-doggin’ blues-rock in 60 seconds of howling nirvana. For the record, the latter, with a capitol N, is also in his wheelhouse of influences.
“Country music has evolved more over the past 20 years than in its entire history,” Rooney says over a latte at Fido, a bustling Nashville coffeehouse where sightings of stars like Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and Kings of Leon’s Followill brothers are as common as the sound of hissing espresso machines. “It’s got a lot of rock and pop qualities. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, my dad, Wendell, told me to play country music and my brother and sisters told me to play rock and roll. That was a dichotomy then, but today I can keep them all happy.”
Rooney is too humble to admit the role he and Rascal Flatts have played in the genre’s transformation. Likewise, he credits überproducer/guitar wrangler/songwriter Dann Huff for helping him achieve the big tones, brilliant textural pads and overall blend of the wily and the wild that characterize his playing.
“The bottom line for me is that it’s all about freedom,” Rooney explains. “I love me some heavy metal. I love rock. I love country. And I like to wrap it all up into one. I don’t see why there has to be a boundary. As a player, I need to think outside the box—especially within the structure of a great tune—and be expressive in my own way.”
GUITAR WORLD: Country music is extremely lyrics driven. How does that affect what you choose to play?
The lyrics are exactly what determine your tone for a solo. Although you don’t want to steal the song’s thunder, you still want to be heard and be creatively expressive so the listener doesn’t start a conversation or turn the dial. That balance is not easy.
If its a slower number, like a 6/8 ballad, and it’s got some motion, like a soaring melody or chorus, the guitar solo shouldn’t soar. When a song is balls to the wall, you can just let ’er rip. On Changed, there are some songs I used an old Gretsch Country Gentleman on, and it was heavy. A lot of players wouldn’t opt for that guitar to rock out, since that’s not what it’s known for. That’s why it’s important to try things outside the box. There’s such a “splatty-ness” that you can get to the Country Gentleman’s tones through a Bogner or Matchless. I also used that combination for a lot of pads we put behind the chords.
How do you approach pads? Many Rascal Flatts ballads—“Changed” and “Here Comes Goodbye” from Unstoppable are good examples—feature vibrant textural guitar parts and tones that sustain like David Gilmour’s.
To give credit where it’s due, [session guitarist] Tom Bukovac may have played the slide pad on “Changed.” We both tracked pads and rhythm parts all over that album, although I know I played the chords and supported myself on the solo for that song. The idea, again, is to support the song. Something has to occupy that space and improve it, so a pad’s got to be just right. And with a song where the melody’s that good, you need to give it the space it deserves.
Man, I love David Gilmour. He’s a singer on the guitar. That’s an idea that Dann introduced me to when he produced Rascal Flatts for the first time, for our fourth album, Me and My Gang. I was getting ready to cut a solo and he said, “Okay, set your guitar down. Let’s find out where you want to go by singing it, and then plug in and play.” That is such a good idea. Otherwise, your fingers want to go somewhere familiar. Once you start seriously thinking about melody—the concept of singing with the guitar—that opens you up to places you’ve never been before.
How can a guitarist make a mark as a player without compromising the verses and choruses of a song?
I preach countermelody. In country, where the singer gets “front and center,” us poor guitar players don’t always get respect. It irks me when people start talking during the solo, so it’s a challenge to keep them from doing that without ruining the vibe of the song. That’s why countermelody is so important. It creates another hook and gets your playing noticed while supporting the song.