Diana Levine for The Boot
The three musicians emerge from their respective buses to greet our crew with friendly smiles. Lead singer Gary sports a plaid button down shirt, black jeans and cowboy boots, while Joe Don opts for similar footwear and what Jay teasingly describes as a "denim shirt-jacket." Jay pulls off the dressy casual look with laceless black sneakers and a grey wool blazer. This isn't their stage attire, but they all look professionally put together. "Two, three... Hey, this is Rascal Flatts!" they say in unison for our cameras. The day has officially begun.
"Hey, buddy!" Jay cheerfully greets a member of their crew who is sporting a camouflage hunting hat that matches the Titan Scout ATV he's sitting on. The guys are excited to end their tour tonight with a high-energy show, relishing in the comfort that seven chart-topping albums and more than a decade together afford these touring troubadours. Joe Don opens the dialogue, reminded of when times were less tame. He laughs as he recalls being involuntarily pulled off stage by a "healthy woman," just a few years ago, ripping his pants and bearing all to the crowd. "I stole the show!" he says with a laugh.
The multi-platinum selling group invited The Boot to follow them along on the last day of their Thaw Out tour, with opening acts Sara Evans and Hunter Hayes. But the guys won't be home for long. They saddle up for a 35-date summer tour starting June 15, alongside Little Big Town, Eli Young Band and Edens Edge. The Farmers Insurance Presents Changed tour celebrates the release of their eighth studio album, 'Changed,' in stores April 3.
Just after 1:00 PM, the band piles into a black SUV for an important field trip. They are filming a video at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, promoting their partnership with General Mills and Feeding America. The campaign, called Outnumber Hunger, aims to raise more than $2 million for Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity network of more than 200 food banks. Gary, Jay and Joe Don's mugs will be featured on select General Mills products throughout April and May.
"That's our picture on a Cheerios box! You can't even dream that big," Gary beams, proudly holding the box. "I's not just being on the box, but what it's there for -- to Outnumber Hunger."
Each numeric code entered online, taken from any marked General Mills product, directs five meals to a local food bank that surrounds the zip code entered. "There are 17 million families on the verge of hunger, and we need to put a dent in that number," Gary explains. "I'm really blessed to be a part of this."
Click here to help Outnumber Hunger
According to Phyllis Dunlop, Vice President at the Community FoodBank of NJ, the facility is the largest in the state and distributes about 40 million pounds of food per year. While giving the trio a tour, she mentions that the facility serves an estimated 900,000 people per month and measures in at 280,000 square feet. "Wow, that's almost as big as Kenny Chesney's house!" Gary laughs.
All jokes aside, the guys are humble about their diverse body of philanthropic work. They have achieved multiple awards for their charitable donations and causes, including the Country Radio Seminar's 2012 Artist Humanitarian Award. "It's the first time we have been to a food bank," Jay says while browsing around the facility. "It's been very eye-opening and sobering for me to see this."
"Any kind of spotlight that's put on the issue of hunger, which is so prevalent in our country, is great," Dunlop says. "To have Rascal Flatts give their time today to put a spotlight on this issue is invaluable to us. We couldn't do this; we couldn't get the attention that we need without help from celebrities, and we are very grateful."
Diana Levine for The Boot
Just after 2:30 PM, the second part of their tour includes some volunteer time with the Otis family. Nina, her husband and two children volunteer every Tuesday at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey to help the families that battle hunger daily. Donning hairnets and aprons, Gary, Jay and Joe Don join the family in scooping uncooked multicolored macaroni into bags, portioning out pasta from a giant cardboard box.
"What are you guys doing, just noodling around?" Gary asks the Otis clan after introductions have been made. They all laugh in response and after much witty banter, which includes an impersonation of Al Pacino by Jay, their time at the community food bank is done.
The clip filmed at the food bank will be part of Rascal Flatts' documentary-style movie, 'Rascal Flatts - CHANGED: One Night Exclusive Theater Event,' which will air in movie theaters nationwide on April 5. The one-night-only film will showcase the trio's charitable efforts, family lives and life on the road.
As the Flatts crew heads back to the Izod Center, traffic is jammed -- mostly due to Whitney Houston's funeral, held just a few hours earlier nearby. Gary and Joe Don reflect on the tragic fall of the angelic-voiced vocalist. "We're not very far from where the funeral was held for Ms. Whitney Houston today. We lost an amazing, one-of-a-kind musical icon," Gary says.
"We've got a lot of reasons to be playing tonight, the last night of the tour ... We've got a lot of great fans here, and for Whitney Houston," Joe Don adds thoughtfully.
Things have changed significantly for the group since their breakthrough hit, 'Prayin' for Daylight,' hit country radio in 2000. Rascal Flatts have gone on to sell more than 21 million records, switched labels and celebrated almost yearly additions to their collective family -- Jay just announced another baby on the way for he and wife Allison, meaning all three are fathers of two.
While sitting down before the show, the group touched on how the title, 'Changed,' was an easy decision for their sophomore release with Big Machine Records.
"I can't think of a better title for this record than 'Changed,' because it's the perfect way to usher in the next 10 years of Rascal Flatts," Jay explains. "When you get to a certain point in your career, it's easy to just phone it in, to get complacent. If you're not careful, you can stop challenging yourself. We all made that commitment to keep pushing ourselves towards excellence, and I believe you can tell that there is marked growth and improvement on this album."
"I'm just so proud of the way the three of us have grown musically. We still push the envelope, and I don't think we have written or cut the perfect song," Gary admits in agreement. "We have cut some timeless pieces but, gosh, ten years flew by. We really feel that we are just getting started."
The new record takes its title from a song Gary penned at his farm with writing partners Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher. "Neil had the idea. His daughter wanted to get baptized when they were on vacation, so that's where the whole thing started. He had the first part of the main verse and it went from there. The three of us wrote and talked about making mistakes ... I think that it's a song that people will really be drawn to."
"Of course, they didn't bother to call Joe Don and I to come in and help them write it, which was real sweet of them," Jay taunts.
"We were at my farm, and we have no cell service out there. I tried! I wrote a note and sent [it with] a pigeon, and you weren't home. He dropped the note," Gary defends himself.
"Uh huh," Joe Don rolls his eyes at Gary. "The dog ate it."
Diana Levine for The Boot
The guys share laughs and bicker like family -- a family that knows each other's secrets. When we ask them to dish something about themselves that fans might not know, Gary reveals Jay's love for World War II history, while Jay remembers Gary's childhood dream for soccer stardom. The two both agree that if Joe Don could live on a golf course in Florida and still play music, he would straddle both worlds in a heartbeat.
They are as close as can be, but Gary admits they also need time apart. "The three buses have been a saving grace. Joe Don is just messy, he'll have clothes everywhere. And Jay hates to throw anything away, so there will be chips and water bottles ... You guys are grown men, I ain't cleaning up after you!"
It wouldn't be a country tour without pranks, and rising star Hunter Hayes is no exception to that rule. Despite getting teased by the Flatts backstage -- or maybe because of it -- the 'Storm Warning' singer took a moment to describe his admiration for the trio. The 20-year-old musician recalled being in the audience at a Rascal Flatts show not long ago.
"I constantly have to remember that just three years ago, I was sitting in the front of house, watching the same show I'm now playing," Hunter explains. "I was the one standing in line to see them! So, it's definitely been a dream tour."
It's 7:30 PM, and more than 100 lucky fans wind down a backstage hallway. Hunter takes the stage and his voice is heard resonating through the concrete tunnel, providing a soundtrack to the fans' excitement.
Carly Ryan, a young teen, won an all-access pair of tickets to the show -- including the band's meet-and-greet. "There's not one bad song, every song they make is absolutely amazing and I love them," she says, shaking with excitement. "I was going in for the hug and I think I blinked, which is really upsetting, but it's OK. I was with them!"
Rascal Flatts Thaw Out tour was one of the top tours of any genre, with the band and crew working tirelessly to make sure their sold-out crowds get every penny's worth. The group explains that they are 100 percent involved in the creative process from the ground up -- deciding everything from the set list to the stage choreography and big-screen video content.
"Gary has said it so many times: you can put the record on if you just want to hear all the songs. But if you want to go to a show and be entertained, you need to put more effort into it and we certainly have prided ourselves in doing that over the years," Jay says.
Diana Levine for The Boot
"The summer tour will be all new, except Jay and Joe Don won't be new -– they will be the same," Gary jokes.
Although their love for touring is evident, the guys try their best to balance music with fatherhood -- a feat not easily achieved but adamantly prioritized.
"We have really adjusted the schedule around our families so we aren't gone a lot of the time. We work maybe three days a week. We try to make it livable, because Lord knows, if the mama ain't happy -- ain't nobody happy!" Gary says.
"I've got a 4-year-old boy and a 17-month-old daughter, so they are ready and rocking when I walk in that door, I will be fired up and ready to go with them," Joe Don adds. "Nothing more humbling than that!"
Peaking through the curtain, the band has sold-out the gargantuan venue with a fire-safety max of 20,000. At 9:19 PM, they get amped to step on stage. There are no visible nerves -- it's the last night of the tour and they are officially thawed out.
"We've had an amazing day, it's been great. The icing on the cake for us is that we get to go and play music," Gary shouts over thousands of roaring fans. "This is the most exciting part of what we get to do for a living so, East Rutherford -- it's on!"