You hear the phrase "living the dream" casually tossed around, but bassist/vocalist Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts really is setting the bar for the storied cliché: An everykid from a musical family in Columbus, Ohio goes to Nashville, gets his band signed, the group tours the world, sells 20 million records, and charts ten No. 1 singles and counting. Oh yeah, he married a beauty queen, too. But behind the easy caricature is a no-bull player and producer, a guy who’s every bit the bass geek as the Jaco worshipper down the street, someone who stood his musical ground in the session-cat-dominated Nashville scene to earn his way onto every Rascal Flatts album since the first back in 2000. “That was our argument,” says DeMarcus, now 38. “That’s what Joe Don Rooney and I do. He plays guitar and I play bass, and there’s no reason to call it a band if you’re not gonna have the guys in the band playing on the records.”
Here’s another sign that DeMarcus was destined to be a bassist—he started off as a drummer. But after realizing he wanted to write songs, he started playing other instruments: guitar, keyboards, mandolin, and bass. After majoring in music at Lee University near Chattanooga, he joined a Christian band called East To West, which brought him to Nashville. “Really, my goals were to write and produce. But I started playing bass more, and as you try to find ways to start paying bills and make a living, you take all kinds of gigs.” He worked steadily, eventually becoming bandleader for country artist Chely Wright. Then in 1997, Jay convinced his cousin, vocalist, and longtime musical collaborator Gary LeVox, to come to Nashville. A year later, it happened. “We started playing some clubs together, and then we got signed as Rascal Flatts. Things sort of took off from there.” You could say that.
With co-write credits throughout the Rascal Flatts catalog, and stand-alone production credits for Michael English, Jo Dee Messina, and Chicago, DeMarcus has achieved his early stated goals of writing and producing. At the end of the day, though, he’s still a bassist in a band, and that was the focus of our interview in the midst of an intense summer publicity blitz to promote the group’s latest album Unstoppable, their fourth consecutive record to debut at No. 1.
What were your early playing years like, and how did bass fit in with the other instruments you picked up?
My father made his living in Columbus playing keys in local bands, and he played Fender piano bass because he could make more money by not hiring a bass player. When I would hear him play, my ear would gravitate toward the bass lines. I quickly found out that I loved that feeling of anchoring the rhythm section with the drummer. My dad showed me a few little things—I learned how to play bass on a Gibson Grabber bass that he had bought at some yard sale. The more I played, the more I loved what a bass guitar meant to a rhythm section.
Who were your three main influences as a bassist and musician?
Right out of the gate, Marcus Miller was a huge influence. I also love Jimmy Johnson and Jaco. I could never play like Jaco, but it was something to shoot for, anyway! And then I got into people who were playing straight pop music, like Nathan East and Leland Sklar. When I started get- ting into the country scene in Nashville, people like Jackie Street and Jimmy Lee Sloas were on some of my favorite records. Plus, Tommy Sims—he’s one of my favorites. He’s sick.
How did you get comfortable playing bass and singing?
That’s tough. You’ve got to have that pocket with the drummer and lay down the groove and sing things that aren’t necessarily in rhythm with the line you’re laying down. Practice-makes-perfect. I like to get the vocals to where they’re second-nature and I don’t have to think about singing my lines, and concentrate more on the groove and the pocket with the bass line.
The first Rascal Flatts CD seems to be the only one featuring Nashville session bassists. After that it’s all you, right?
Yeah. We were new artists, and the producers didn’t know us very well, so I kind of see their point of view. They didn’t know what they’d be getting, and they didn’t want to put some untested guy in the studio playing with a bunch of session guys, and potentially putting them in a place where they were wasting a bunch of money if I couldn’t deliver.
So we finally sat down and I said, Look, it’s my record, I want a shot, and if it sucks, I’ll spend money out of my own pocket to replace it. That’s how we started playing on our records.
I remember a distinct moment. We did the first track on the second record, and the producers were sitting there. The drummer, Lonnie Wilson, came into the control room, and we listened back to the first take, and he started laughing. He was like, My God, man, that’s awesome! There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be playing on all kinds of records. And our producer at the time, Mark Bright, turned around and started chuckling, All right, all right, I was wrong, I was wrong, I’m sorry. And after that it was all good.
What’s it like playing bass in arenas and stadiums versus honky-tonks and smaller clubs?
Well, you can get away with more in smaller settings. You can play a little fancier and show off your chops a bit more. When you’re playing a bigger arena or outdoor venue, you have to simplify, because a lot of it is lost in translation. What might sound cool in your own ear mix is completely lost by the time it gets to the person in the back row of an arena. So I learned very quickly in the first few years of touring that what you have to do is simplify and make the low end translatable as it gets out to the arena.
How do the bass lines on the Rascal Flatts records get created? And how does that fit into the overall writing process?
We’re fortunate to work with one of the greatest producers and guitar players of our times. Dann Huff just inspires you to play better. When we’re taking a track and working out the arrangement, I always try to create a line that means something to the song. I try to make the bass matter. The only criticism I’ve ever had of country music is for so long, the bass line was so anemic that it meant nothing to the track. I love bass, and I love lines that matter and jump out at you. I try to approach each take differently and not play the same thing every time. Sooner or later, take after take, you home in on a part that fits the track, and ultimately mat- ters as a bass line.
When you’re producing other bassists, what do you look to draw out of them on a session?
I let them do what they do. I try not to get too nitpicky about it, because it’s hard as a bass player; when you listen to a song, you know what you would play. The bassists I use are extraordinary, so in the first place, there’s a reason that they’re in there. It’s because I believe in what they do.
If you could track bass on a cut for any artist in the world other than Rascal Flatts, who would it be?
I’d say Paul McCartney. It would be such an honor to have one of my favorite melodic bass players call me to play bass on a track for his record.
What have you learned about yourself as a bassist and musician over the past ten years—and what do you want to learn in the next ten?
More than anything, I’ve learned that just when I think I’m good and I can bring something unique to the table, I find out quickly that I suck and I have a lot of work left to do. [Laughs.] Ten years from now, I hope that I can look back and say the same thing, and that I’m still doing what I love, which is playing bass on records. I hope I’m still employed!
CAN BE HEARD ON
Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable [Lyric Street, 2009] Rascal Flatts, Me and My Gang [Lyric Street, 2006] LeAnn Rimes, Whatever We Wanna [Warner Classics UK, 2006]