MIAMI – Rascal Flatts' guitarist and vocalist Joe Don Rooney grew up in Picher and although his hometown is gone, his memories are vivid and real.
Tonight the three music superstars, Rooney, Jay DeMarcus, and Gary LeVox take the stage at Buffalo Run Casino's outdoor stage for a huge concert as part of their 2014 Rewind Tour. Rascal Flatts the most rewarded Country group sold over 22.5 million albums and over 29 million digital downloads and with their 15th number one track has certainly made its mark in music.
Joe Don, who was born in Baxter Springs, Kansas and raised in Picher, has deep roots here.
Melinda Stotts: Well at least you know how to say Miami right?
Joe Don: Laughing, “I've had to teach my Nashvillian buddies that Miami, Florida has had it wrong forever.”
MS: What's your favorite memory of growing up around here?
Joe Don: “You know Miami was always the big city, (laughs) and Joplin was close too. I think being tucked up in the corner of Northeast Oklahoma like that there's just so much to do, there's a lot of options. You know growing up I loved being in Picher. I loved the chat piles. I have explained to people for so many years what a chat pile is.”
MS: Have you been there lately?
Joe Don: About two years ago I got to take my son, he's now six. Jagger and I went back and spent some time on my Mom (Jo) and Dad's (Wendell). They have a nice little farm outside of Quapaw and we got to spend a few days with them. I took him back to Picher to see how Daddy grew up. He was pretty young, and that was really neat. I took some pictures of him on top of some of those chat piles. I got a really cool shot of him sitting down on top of a chat pile – his back's kind of to the camera and he's looking out at where our house used to sit because there's nothing there now, and over his right shoulder is the water tower. It's a really nice image of him staring off into what used to be. It's changed so much and it's heartbreaking, but I think it's for all the right reasons. It's a pretty toxic area and I think they're going to figure all that out with time.”
MS: You still have your memories.
Joe Don: “The memories are still there, they can't have those. I used to love going to Miami and cruising Main on the weekends. Summertime was really big for cruising Main street, it was a big loop.”
MS:What do you miss the most about this area?
Joe Don: “You know I miss, in a beautiful way, just the slower pace. Sometimes when you get in these bigger cities it's just so hustle and bustle and it's just so easy to get behind and to feel removed. Growing up in northeast Oklahoma taught me just to be patient, taught me to try unique things and different things. You had to make things up sometimes, there wasn't everything under the sun to do in Oklahoma and you had to create some things every now and then and have some fun ... I love the city life too, but I truly do miss the slower pace. Having kids now, I have a third baby on the way, it's just made me really respect where I'm from more and more the older I get and I've actually seen the world.”
MS: What were you like in high school?
Joe Don: “I had a really unique upbringing in Picher because a lot of us there were athletes and if you weren't even like a real athlete, you still had to play because they didn't have enough for a team. It was cool because me and bunch of my buddies marched in the band too. We were musical and loved to play sports.”
MS: I know your family is pretty musical, so did you always dream of being a musician?
Joe Don: “We say that music kind of chose me. I didn't have a choice in the matter. Especially my Mom's side of the family, the Conders, she was the eighth born, all of her siblings play. We still have family reunions and I feel horrible, I've only made the last few of them because of my schedule. Well summertime is when we tour and I'm like, 'Can you guys have this some other time of the year for gosh sakes?' They still always bring acoustic guitars and have a stage set up and everybody has to get up a sing and play, even if you don't sing and play you got to get up there.”
MS: How did you get started - was it playing at the old Grand Lake Opry in Grove?
Joe Don: “My dad played, so growing up he would play little honkytonks on the weekends. He always worked Monday through Friday, he was a hard working, blue collar electrician. He worked at NEO for a lot of years and finally retired from there. But on weekends he would always find time for golf in the morning and play music on the weekend nights. But he was able to take me out to some of these clubs at a pretty early age around there in the late '80s and early '90s, you know cops were cool about it and it was small town stuff you know. So, I would sit in and play with them. If we weren't playing a club it would be with my Mom's brothers at one of their houses jamming in Quapaw and the Fairland area with a couple handfuls of buddies that could pick and sing. We would get in somebody's garage and just go to town. It was so much fun and at an early age I started figuring out I could sing just a little bit, but I was really interested in guitar. So, by the time I was 10 or 11 I got my first electric guitar for myself and my dad started teaching me some chords. A lot of people were very influential to me around that area. A guy named Rick Huffman who still plays a lot of music around there from Picher, Fabulous musician, fabulous keyboard player. Just so may people took the time to work with me and were patient with me and taught me what they know. There was another guy named Floyd McCoy, a fantastic guitar player and I would go to his house and he would teach me. Rollie Williams too, and the list goes on and on of people who were so awesome, just inspiring and so willing to take me under their wing and teach me what they knew. ”
MS: All that mentoring shows in your skill now.
Joe Don: “Rick Huffman was a little older than I was which was great and he was in all these bands and was able to influence me in ways kids my age couldn't. He had all these old recordings from Steve Gaines, Steve and Cassie Gaines were from Miami. Steve had a band called Crawdad years ago and he played clubs in Kansas and Missouri. So, he had all these live recordings, Rick had all this stuff that I still have to this day, he gave me copies. I still go back and listen to it because Steve was so damn good and such an inspiration growing up in Miami and going on and doing what he did. We lost him way too young. He was very influential on me though and still is.”
MS: I saw you had a band called Uncle Thumbtak?
Joe Don: “It was my first real rock band, pop band. We would do little parties and stuff around the Miami area and out in the country. We played out at Spats at Grand Lake, it was the place to hang in the 90s. Uncle Thumbtak was me and brothers Erin Fitzgibbon and Greg Fitzgibbon. We had a blast. Collin Frazier was our drummer. Man we went down to Tulsa and played gigs and opened for some bigger rock acts. I got to cut my teeth on playing rock music and doing some stuff in Joplin.”
MS: How did you get the drive to take it further to Nashville?
Joe Don: “I just loved it so much. I think I was getting good enough to have the confidence to try to go to another level. I got this call to audition for a band in Arkansas called Sycamore West. At that time I was 17 years old and was playing places like the Grand Lake Opry which was so cool because every month they would bring down a star from the Grand Ole Opry and so we'd see Johnny Russell, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Merle Haggard actually came and we got to see all these wonderful players from Nashville. It was very inspiring. So, country music started becoming a big part of my life. So, this gig comes up. I was just going to college my first year and get a call form a friend who knows about this gig with Sycamore West. My mom and dad actually went with me and took me to Rogers, Arkansas and this band was playing this big club called Alibis. It was huge club with a 5,000 square foot dance floor. Back then boot scooting boogie and all that stuff was really cool and everybody was still line dancing. I heard that band and my dad and I kind of looked at each other and said, 'Holy crap, this band is really good,' amazing bar band, better than just a bar band. These guys were tight, the sound system sounded amazing. They traveled all throughout the southwest. They'd take an RV and pull a trailer and they'd go play a club for four or five nights straight and stay in a band house and they would cut and go to the next city and stay out for two to three months at a time. I jumped up on stage that night in Rogers and played a few songs with them and went and sat back down. After the second or third break they came down at 10 o'clock at night and said, 'Hey, we'd like to hire you,' and I said 'Oh my gosh, I'd love to quit college and go on the road!'” (laughs hard) “It's so bad to say that, but my mom and dad both worked at the school. My mom was the switchboard operator at NEO. I told them both I wanted to go do this, and they were like,' You know what, you can come back and go to school if this doesn't work out.' Amazing. I would say to any parent out there it's got to be tough to do that. I'm also the youngest of four so they were probably kind of tired of having me in the house. (laughs) I toured with them for a year and a half. We traveled all over the southwest and I'd never really been out there that much. It was amazing it really was. So, I was playing a show down in Muskogee and I was with a guy Jeff Bates who ended up getting a record deal in Nashville in 2002. I got a job with him because of one of the guys in Sycamore West ... and I met the drummer for Chely Wright that night and his name was Preston Stanfield from Missouri. He took my number and four months into the gig with Jeff he asked me if I wanted to meet Chely. A this time I was 20 and things were happening really fast. Preston called me on my dad's birthday Jan. 5, 1998 and said Chely wanted to meet me the next day. Well it started snowing so hard and what's normally a nine hour drive ended up being a whole day excursion. I packed up my stuff and left for Nashville thinking it was going to be just a couple weeks. Mom and dad gave me a little cash, I had a little saved up myself. It took like 20 hours to get there ... he woke me up at 9 o'clock and said I get your shoes on and I went down town and tried out for Chely and she hired me. On the spot and I got the gig. I was in. I was very blessed to have a lot of things kind of add up and line up on the way. So, from there in Chely's band entered Jay DeMarcus, he was her band leader and keyboard player. He and I became really good buddies and fast friends, loved the same style of music and sort of writing on the road. He kept telling me about his cousin Gary (LeVox) who was a pretty good singer. (laughing) He kept telling me, ' I have this cousin, you might want to hear him.' He didn't want to over sell it. I went to a club one night and hear those two yahoos and went, 'Holy smokes these guys are awesome!' About a week after that they invited me to make a trio and we just had so much fun. We kept playing these clubs downtown and next thing you know in about six months we got offered a record deal and here we are 14 years later.”
MS: Is there a moment that stands out when you knew you had made it?
Joe Don: “You know I hate to use that term 'made it' because that sounds so final. I always like the hunger, and you know after 14 years we feel like we just are starting to find our rhythm and our stride now. More than ever before it's so competitive in all business aspects not just music, but everything is so competitive. There's just so much thrown at people at a hyper, hyper speed. Online is kind of where it's at now but you get things to people digitally faster and people want things free now days. But what we've learned is you can't get better than a concert. You've got to come out to a concert and experience it with all your senses, that's the best way to hear music -- to experience a concert. We're always trying to create something timeless if we can. It's really special.”
MS: Who influenced you musically?
Joe Don: “I've always been a fan of Oklahoma singers. Vince Gill is at the top of my list -- huge fan of his playing, singing and his writing. He's such a triple threat and I always wanted to try and be that. I'm still aspiring to that. I love listening to his old stuff. He lives right around the corner now. (laughs) I want to go back and answer the question you asked originally of when I knew I made it ... The only think that's made me think we've really done something is when we were invited to be members of the Grand Ole Opry. It was Vince Gill that asked us, so for one of our true heroes to asked us and now to call him a friend is beyond this world. It's special. I always thought Garth Brooks was such a great entertainer, he's another Okie. You're not going to beat his live show. And bands, I love the Eagles.”
MS: I like your list.
Joe Don: “I always say my top ten list has thirty people on it.” (laughs)
MS: Your guitar playing is part of what makes Rascal Flatts stand out. The fame has its ups and downs, what are those for you?
Joe Don: “Probably the time commitment. When you're creating a record or a full length album. The new album (Rewind) has 17 tracks and that's a lot of music. It's not just the songs you're using because we probably recorded 30 songs and you weed it down to the best ones that fit, so we took over a year and half to make that album. And so it's a lot of being out in L.A. and a lot of being gone and out on the road touring. You might get a few hours at home, but you know we signed up for it and our wives and our families understand it. Our kids understand what daddy does, we're all three daddies now and this drives everything we do in our lives. We're creative people. We're artists and we live and breathe whatever that art is and you get consumed by it, you do. The drawback is you don't get a lot of the time with your family you want. But I've learned that you have to maximize your time with them, so we always try to go somewhere fun, or just down time at the house. We do everything we can to make it fun for the kids and make it memorable for them. Jagger is six now and he's at that age where the memories are going to be piling up. Raquel – we call her Rocky – is four and she's at that age. And the new baby is coming in September. A little girl.”
MS: I can hear how it has changed you being a father, your focus and priorities. What's the good part of fame, what do you love about it?
Joe Don: “What really gets me going is when you've recorded a song and all your blood, sweat and tears have gone into it and you get these letters on how a certain song has changed somebody's life or affected them in such a way that they were moved to have to write you a letter about it. For 'Movin' On' we got letters from people who had contemplated suicide or addiction and how that song lifted them to a place to help them believe in themselves in those difficult times. Songs like 'Broken Road' that was played at a lot of people's weddings and graduations. It's special to know that you've created something that goes beyond music. It goes beyond that it's, like, medicinal for people. That's exactly how I grew up with music and made me fall in love with music. Songs are like memories of their own, you go back to songs my Dad used to sing like 'On the Road Again. ' I love that old song and I would be like, 'Dad you going to sing that again,' and now I love it. And it means so much to me. I understand that song more now then ever being older. It really was the story of my life before my road life began.”
MS: I've kept you here forever.
Joe Don: “It's been a wonderful conversation.”
MS: One last question, what does it mean to perform here?
Joe Don: “It means everything. A lot has changed, obviously, like we've been talking about. My heart and thoughts and prayers have been with my home town for many years now ... It's just heart wrenching to know your hometown you grew up in is in shambles and has been completely changed and everybody has moved out of there practically. It's part of change and change can be a good thing some times. Some times it's good to get out of your comfort zone and try something new and you never know what can happen with that. I say coming back home is always bittersweet. I can't wait to get out on the stage Friday. I hope they come out and see our Rewind Tour and hear some songs they know and some they haven't heard and love all over them for a couple hours.”