Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts: "I Love Metal, Rock and Country — and I Like to Wrap It All Up Into One"
I understand that Dann Huff was instrumental in getting approval for you and Jay to actually play on Rascal Flatts’ albums?
Our first producers were Mark Bright and Marty Williams. When we got with them to record our debut in 1999, they had a bunch of studio cats lined up to play, which is how it works in Nashville.
Since success was sweeping us up, Jay and me thought we’d play the game a little bit. We were fresh young kids trying to make it, and these guys were experienced. But after a couple years, we were like, “Hey, come check us out live. We really do play! Give us a shot, and if we fall on our faces, you can go back to the studio players.”
Since Dann was a proponent of our playing, Jay and I sought his advice. He said, “I can make the phone call.” He called the label and said that we needed to play on the third album, and that when we did it was probably going to open up a new door in Rascal Flatts. Mark and Marty were cool and listened to Dann, and after that, we did every other album with Dann. So Dann is definitely a mentor. He was also one of my heroes before I moved to Nashville, because of the great work he’d done as a singer, writer, guitarist and producer.
How did you fall in love with guitar?
I was 11 when I got my first one—a Seafoam Green American Standard Tele. I enjoyed music. My mom has eight brothers, and they all sang and played. Every summer, her family would have reunions and play, and my dad always fit in. He played country music and Top 40 in the bars back home.
I used to stay up all night trying to learn new licks off of Arlen Roth videos—which set the bar—or Brett Mason or Albert Lee licks, and then at 7 A.M. I’d catch the bus to school. Luckily, Picher, Oklahoma, is a small town, so it wasn’t a long ride.
By 14 or 15, I was lugging my Tele, my old Fender Twin with JBL speakers and a distortion pedal to rock clubs to play. My dad helped me put wheels on the Twin, which changed the sound a little bit. After I moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, at 18 to play in a family theater, I had a Seymour Duncan Hot Stack installed under the pickguard between the neck and bridge pickups so I could do all that Brett Mason stuff when his chicken pickin’ and other licks were so popular in Nashville.
I had one of my tone pots replaced with a pot that could blend the Hot Stack in. I had that guitar until right before Rascal Flatts formed. It got stolen out of my truck after I moved to Nashville, along with a set of golf clubs. I wish I had that guitar back!
In a town where you can get ridden out on a rail for not playing Telecasters, what made you pivot toward the Gibsons and Paul Reed Smiths you favor now?
It started with Dann Huff, who took me aside after a show and said, “You’re a wonderful player, but you don’t have a personality yet.” I said, “What’s your idea?”
We were cutting “Life Is a Highway” for the Cars soundtrack. That was the first song I ever cut with Dann, and he got out one of his old Les Pauls and told me, “Plug this guitar into that amp and just feel it.” He also had a Keeley compressor pedal and a Fulltone overdrive chained into his 4x12 Bogner cabinet and head set on channel three, which is the rhythm channel with a little more dirt. We cranked it up. It was really hot. I was sold.
You alternate between playing with a pick and your fingers. How did you develop that approach?
Brett Mason, again. I was using glue-on nails at one point, because that’s what Brett was doing. He seemed like a stud, so I figured that if he could get away with it, I could too. You get a nice linear sound. Brett would use his index finger to pop the strings, to get a different tone. I switched to a flat pick and three fingers, and popping with that middle finger. That combination gives you a variety of tones within your guitar’s tone.
Jeff Beck’s been an inspiration, too. He’s also one of Dann’s heroes. Jeff’s technique…the way he rolls the volume and plays at the same time. He’s like a pedal steel player who is missing some levers. There were a lot of guitarists in the Sixties and Seventies, including Jeff, who built their fingerstyle picking up. I wonder if Chet Atkins was so dominant back then that some of the best country and rock guitarists tried to emulate him. He is the greatest guitarist there ever was. He would play the bass part, play the interior part of the chords and the melody all at once. Amazing.
What’s most important when you’re building a solo?
When I’m recording a solo, I like to play to the tone, so I dial up a new sound and then see if it fits in the box. I try to avoid going back to the same tones I’ve used before. I really want to be inspired. If something doesn’t work, I’ll get another guitar, another amp, change the setting. And I don’t wig out when I make a mistake. Mistakes are sometimes where the real emotional stuff occurs. With Pro Tools and the other electronic gear we have, it’s easy to go in and make things tick-tock perfect, but sometimes a bend that isn’t quite right fits the emotions in a song best.
You’re obviously a key figure in modern country guitar. Was there a point when you felt you’d arrived at your very own style?
I don’t know if I’ve had that feeling yet, to be honest. Recording “What Hurts the Most” [for Rascal Flatts’ Me and My Gang album] in 2005 was a very personal experience. There’s a simple blues solo that comes in and goes out really quick, but when I slid into it I felt a kind of attitude and happiness with what I was doing that seemed really natural and right. Just before the “record” button got pushed, Dann told me to do anything I wanted, even if I might make a mistake. I’ve always been a fan of sliding into solos, and when I did, it seemed to come pouring out.
I moved to Nashville because I wanted to play country like what Vince Gill was doing—in a way that’s a tip of the hat to the purists but also brings your own qualities as a musician to the game. Playing guitar was a safe haven to let loose of my emotions as a teenager. Maybe the only difference now is I’m an adult.
Photo: Russ Harrington