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By Gary Graff
of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

Rascal Flatts is unquestionably country. But there's also no question that, these days, the Nashville trio is rockin'.

"Me and My Gang," the group's fourth album, is its second consecutive to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's country and pop charts -- and with nearly 722,000 copies sold it's the top-selling debut of the year so far. It's been certified double-platinum since its early April release, and Rascal Flatts was also named the Academy of Country Music's Top Vocal Group at last month's awards ceremony.

All told, Rascal Flatts is has sold more than 10 million albums in its six-year career and has notched a dozen Top 10 country singles, including the chart-toppers "These Days," Bless the Broken road," Mayberry," "Fast Cars and Freedom" and "What Hurts Most." The Rascal Flatts songbook has also become mandatory material for "American Idol" contestants.

"It's very, very, very humbling," says the group's Gary LeVox (ne Vernon). "It's just good to see that all the hard work has paid off and that the fans have went out and got it and that they like it.

"We've been blessed. It's beyond words how proud we are."

Bandmate Jay DeMarcus, meanwhile, says the success has mitigated some skepticism that surrounded the band in its early days.

"A lot of people thought we were some kind of contrived boy band or whatever. Now I think that's sort of dissipated,," says DeMarcus, 35, a Columbus, Ohio, native (born Stanley DeMarcus, Jr.) who formed the group with LeVox, his second cousin, and Joe Don Rooney, a colleague from country singer Chely Wright's backing band.

"Me and My Gang" paired Rascal Flatts with Dann [cq] Huff, the onetime rocker turned hot Nashville producer who's worked with Faith Hill, Keith Urban and LeAnn Rimes, among others. According to DeMarcus, Huff was the most empathetic studio hand to record the trio.

"He comes from such a band-oriented background," notes DeMarcus, "so it was really different how we cut the record. We went in and cut it like a band. Joe Don played guitar and was really the focal point of everything. We felt like something was missing from our music; there wasn't enough time making Joe Don heard.

"So we did that this time. And I was playing bass and we hired a couple players -- a drummer and piano player. We got the meat and bones of everything down first and then went in and painted it up later on. It was incredible."

Rascal Flatts' members co-wrote three of the album's 13 songs. But the group has no desire to write all the songs, which would mean cutting itself off from the Nashville songwriting community that's contributed so many hits to Its repertoire.

"We've found so many great writers in town," DeMarcus says. "That's just the natural evolution of being a successful recording band; with every record, the songs get better and better and better."

LeVox, 35, adds that "hit songs is all we try to find. At the end of the day, we try to write and find the best songs that we can, and at the place where we're at now, all the songs that we're getting pitched are good. It's about finding those gems and the great songs."

"Me and My Gang" is actually DeMarcus' second major release this year. He also produced Chicago's latest album, "Chicago XXX," fulfilling a dream to work with a band that he "grew up loving" and whose music is "part of my DNA." He was also pleased the veteran group was "completely open to me. They were very, very kind and listened to my advice. They were truly professional."

But DeMarcus adds, fans don't need to worry about him choosing more of those kinds of outside projects over his own "Gang."

"Rascal Flatts is my heart and soul," he says. "I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize that career. I love what we do as a band, and it's so great to be in a band with guys I love making music with. That will always be my priority -- and there's a lot more for us to do, I think."

Rascal Flatts, Gary Allan and the Wreckers perform at 8 p.m. Friday (June 9) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $52.25. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit

Web Site: www.palacenet.com.

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