The Producer’s Chair: Jay DeMarcus

Jay DeMarcus

Jay DeMarcus

Don’t miss Jay DeMarcus on The Producer’s Chair, on Thursday, April 28, at Douglas Corner at 6 p.m.

By: James Rea

It looks like Jay DeMarcus’s musical journey has finally come full-circle. The truth is, DeMarcus didn’t come to Nashville to do 200 dates a year with Rascal Flatts. He came here to produce and write songs. The remarkable part is, he’s managed to do it all. And the proof is in the puddin’.

DeMarcus is producing Reba’s next album and worked on Rascal Flatts’ latest album, Rewind. He has produced Chicago, Alabama, Michael English, Jo Dee Messina, Kix Brooks, Jason Crabb, Austins Bridge, Ronnie Dunn, Lucy Hale, and the Nashville cast’s Christmas Record. And that’s just a partial list.

DeMarcus is also a killer self-taught multi-instrumentalist who seldom turns down session work when opportunities to play with artists like Brian McKnight, LeAnn Rimes, Lady Antebellum and Lionel Richie come his way. His body of work has garnered Grammy and Dove awards and nominations, an impressive list of songwriter credits, and what appears to be a promising acting career (with a recurring role as himself on Nashville).

DeMarcus was born in Columbus, Ohio, in ’71, to musical parents.

“Yeah, they met playing music. Both my mom and my dad grew up playing music with their families,” he says. “All I knew growing up was, my dad was gone nights playing music and he was really good at it and my mom was Country Music Queen of Ohio in 1969.”

DeMarcus started playing drums when he could walk, wrote his first song at age 11, learned how to play bass, keyboards, guitar and mandolin, and sang his ass off in bands while attending Lee College in Cleveland, Tennessee. He arrived in Nashville in ‘92, only to land a record deal on Benson with Christian group East To West.

“I wanted to write and produce,” he says. “It’s so funny, I’ve had two artist record deals without really trying. I never really wanted to be an artist. I was so much more fascinated with the behind-the-scenes stuff.”

The Producer’s Chair: How did you get your first producing gig with Michael English?

DeMarcus: After East to West broke up, I was on the road with Michael. We were playing a lot of pop music, and then he would still do a lot of his old favorite gospel tunes because the fans still wanted to hear him do that. So we went in and cut his Gospel record on a shoestring budget and it ended up being Michael’s biggest-selling record on Curb. We got nominated for a Grammy and we got nominated for Album of the Year at the Dove Awards, so I went out on the road with him to support that record.

As he started to work more, there weren’t enough dates to make it to where I could do it full-time. So I started to reach out to friends of mine in Nashville here. Started going to some of the bars and some of the clubs and making friends with a lot of people that were playing country music. I’ve always loved country music and I had a heart for it. It’s what I grew up listening to and just didn’t really know how to get started ‘cause I’d spent most of my early years in Christian music.

How did Rascal Flatts emerge?

Gary [LeVox] and Joe Don [Rooney] and I were playing in Printers Alley at the Fiddle & Steel Guitar Bar and Mila Mason used to come in and see us pretty regularly. She was an artist at that time and she fell in love with us and she said, “I want to do whatever I can to help you guys. I think there’s some magic here.” [Her friends] Mark Bright and Marty Williams came in a few times to see us sing together and Mark said, “Why don’t you come in to the office? Let’s sit down, let’s talk about your future and see what we can do.”

So we went in and we sang with him. He wanted to hear us outside of that element of doing just covers and he wanted to hear us with a couple of acoustics. He said, ‘I want to get involved, I wanna do this. I want to make a record on you guys.’ So we signed a production deal with Sony and with Mark and Marty. Before we were finished with that three-song demo, he took it to Dann Huff. And Dann said, “Lyric Street I know is looking for a band right now.”

Why would Mark take it to Dann Huff? 

Dann was turning into what he is. He was turning into the golden boy of Nashville. I think Mark wanted to bounce the music off of Dann and Dann said, “This is great. Let me take it to Doug Howard [at Lyric Street] if you don’t mind. I’ll let him hear it.” So he took the roughs over to Doug and… the rest is history. It was really surreal.

Rascal Flatts has taken some heat over the years about being considered ‘country.’ How did you feel about that?

This is so weird, really, because of where I started from. My dad would play rock, R&B, and country in the clubs because back in the day you had to have a pretty good repertoire. And then we would go to church on Sundays and I would hear hymns and Christian music, and then I would pop on the radio and I fell in love with the likes of Journey and Toto. So I was a very confused young man.

I loved it all and it all kind of fused together because I had a great appreciation for everything. If it was good I wanted to hear it and I wanted to know it and I wanted to be around it. And so it was. I think that’s why it was so frustrating early on in our careers because we were derided as such a fluffy, pop boy band and not really a country band. I didn’t really expect that because I just figured if you tried to do your best and make good music, it was gonna rise to the top.

What’s your fondest memory of playing on Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee sessions?

I can remember two distinct things. One is sitting in a chair across from Shannon Forrest remaking “Brick House” and playing the bass line to it. I’m watching Lionel standing there singing it and I’m watching Shannon Forrest over there playing that signature drum intro and I’m playing the bass line and I’m going, “This is freaking Lionel Richie and I’m playing ‘Brick House?’This is unbelievable!” That’s when the world went in slow motion for me because I was going, “How did I end up here? This is amazing.”

Two, I also remember Lady Antebellum came in to cut “Running With the Night.” They’re in the vocal booth singing behind me and trying to work out this middle section. They’re going back and forth and I just have this idea in my mind that was like, “What if we just stop the music and let you guys harmonize in this big hole and then the band will come back in?” And Lionel Richie said, ‘My man, now that’s why you are here! That’s why you are sitting in that chair!” And so we ran it a couple times and they loved it. Then of course I made some joke like, “Now how many points do I get for that?”

How did Gary and Joe Don react when you wanted to start producing Rascal Flatts?

I’ve been producing a bunch of stuff for the Flatts on our previous records, bonus cuts or whatever, so I’ve been itching to get my hands on the Flatts for years. I had a very honest conversation with my guys and I said, “For years, I’ve been producing other people and pouring all of my energy into other things. Just give me a shot.” And I finally got my shot.

We did a handful of songs with Howard Benson and we came back to town and cut them here. And we released “Rewind” and it went to No. 1. And I’m very, very proud because we’re getting ready to have another hit again with another song that I did called, “I Like the Sound of That.”

Do you feel like there’s a different kind of responsibility when you’re producing Rascal Flatts, as opposed to producing another artist? Is there a different feeling?

Yeah, there is a different feeling for me. I think I feel a greater weight and a greater sense of responsibility to always listen to what those guys have to say and make sure that I’m not dismissing their very valid input. I can get single-minded when I’m producing by myself on another artist and I know the way this should go. I’ve got clear vision for it and I know how to chisel away the stone until we get to where we’re going.

With Rascal Flatts, it’s a little more tedious because I’ve got two guys who need to be heard. They need to have their ideas explored, even if in the back of my mind, I’m going, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” I’ve gotta chase it and I gotta see what we end up with, because they have as much ownership in it as I do.

If you could give young artists advice, what would it be?

Don’t chase a trend. Don’t chase something. I think you have to be authentic because if you aren’t, people are gonna see through it. There’s so many people that started chasing trends in our business, whether or not you want to call it bro-country or whatever. I think that some of those people have every right to be there because that’s authentically who they are. Some of the people that have chased might wake up one day and find that it wasn’t authentic and they’re gonna be sorry for the choices that they’ve made. You gotta be true to yourself and who you are. You gotta sing and be what you are naturally.

The Producer’s Chair: Where do you see Rascal Flatts five years from now?

DeMarcus: We’ve had this conversation before—we’ll never break up. I think that eventually as the Flatts start to slow down, we’ll probably do some things that each of us want to do individually. For me, the next chapter in my life is about developing the next generation of artists. I want to find the new talent. I want to do what Shane McAnally has the luxury to do, which is to spend time writing with them and developing them and helping them find themselves.

That’s one thing that I’m so jealous of. The guys that get to stay in town and do this every day. I mean I love being in the Flatts and what we do is very, very important and it is my priority right now, but the other side of it is very appealing to me right now. That’s the next phase for me. I want to tap into writing and developing and finding young new talent.

I’ve been considering that for the past two years. I’ve been figuring out how that picture looks the best. It’s a very hard thing to figure out when you spend so much time out on the road like I do. You have to have somebody that you trust implicitly running it, and somebody that you can put your confidence in, and know they are going to do it the way that you would do it if you were there. So I’ve been trying to figure that out, but yes, I very much would say that’s the way my business is going to look in the future. If you have the capabilities of doing it and the right artists, that’s the key. With the right talent, why not? I think the sky’s the limit.

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