"Guitar strings and tape weren't free," he tells Guideposts magazine. "Mom suggested I take a summer job where she worked, at the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation. My mom, grandmother and Jay's mom had all worked there for decades." So Gary followed in their footsteps, and began training people with developmental disabilities to be able to live independently.
Ultimately, Gary fell in love with the job -- and his clients. "I trained seven to eight people a day, breaking down, step by step, each part of having a job: punching a time card, packing a lunch, basic conversation ... I didn't stop dreaming about a music career, but I could see why my Mom liked this job. The people are inspiring."
He may have stayed forever, he admits, but a Special Olympics medal changed everything. One of his clients, whose crippling fear of being in front of strangers caused him to struggle with even the most mundane tasks, proudly showed Gary the medal he won racing in front of a stadium filled with people he didn't know. "He'd put aside his fears," Gary recalls. "Just because he had challenges didn't mean he would give up. That took a kind of faith I'd never seen before ... I longed to draw on that kind of courage myself."
Shortly after that experience, Gary made the decision to move to Nashville to pursue his own dreams, drawing on the inspiration he witnessed at his job every day. And while he says deep down he knew he was doing the right thing, it wasn't an easy beginning.
"It was slow going in Nashville at first," Gary recalls. "We played in places so small, Jay had to set up his keyboard next to the cigarette machine. One night we played from nine to three and left with 27 cents in the tip jar. I worked two jobs to pay the rent, building swimming pools by day, delivering newspapers after our gigs. Jay and I lived on ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - minus the jelly."
He may have given up and returned to the job he loved, had he not had a chance encounter with Jay's friend, Joe Don Rooney. "One night our guitarist couldn't make it, and Jay's friend Joe Don joined in. By the time we reached the chorus of our first song, 'The Church on Cumberland Road,' I knew we had something special."
Now, with ten No.1 singles, more than 18 million albums sold and dozens of awards, Rascal Flatts is a household name. But, Gary says he owes his success to his former job. "When we signed our record deal I finally go tot feel the joy that my clients felt. I couldn't have done it without them. I'd spent so much time teaching them how to fulfill their dreams. I hadn't realized what they were teaching me."
Rascal Flatts are working on their seventh studio album. The generous band members recently donated their time and money for the Monroe Carell, Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.