Gary LeVox reached for the light switch and flipped it. Nothing.
Stumbling around the cold, darkened apartment, he called the building manager, only to discover the lights weren't on because he and his cousin, Jay DeMarcus, hadn't paid the electric bill.
"I went across the street to a neighbor's and got ahold of Jay, who was out on the road with Chely Wright," LeVox says. "He's like, 'Dude, I have no money to pay it.' I said, 'What am I supposed to do?' and he's like, 'I don't know. I'm out on the road.' "
LeVox laughs when recounting the story of the early days for Rascal Flatts.
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"It's been an amazing journey. There were a lot of peanut-butter-without-the-jelly sandwiches. Thank goodness for ramen noodles, because you could buy a box of that stuff for a dollar."
On Thursday, LeVox, DeMarcus and bandmate Joe Don Rooney will take their once-unlikely journey to Intrust Bank Arena. This year, the trio celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the release of their first single, "Prayin' for Daylight," which soared to No. 3 on the charts and launched a career that has included 11 No. 1 singles and 20 million albums sold.
"It's mind-blowing. It's bigger than any dream I could ever dream," LeVox, the group's lead singer, says.
It's a dream that started in Columbus, Ohio, while LeVox was counseling the disabled and teaching them work skills at the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. While DeMarcus had moved to Nashville and was working with a Christian group, East to West, LeVox was winning $100 a pop at karaoke contests around the Columbus area. DeMarcus eventually persuaded him to move to Nashville.
Turns out the karaoke competition is a lot stiffer in Music City.
"At least 10 times I had a conversation with my mom that maybe this wasn't what I was supposed to do. She'd say, 'You hang in there. God gave you a gift, and he wouldn't have brought you down there if he didn't have a plan for you.' "
That plan led to a gig one night at Nashville's Fiddle and Steel Guitar bar for LeVox and DeMarcus without their guitarist, who had called in sick. DeMarcus called up his pal Rooney and asked if he could sit in with them. They knew it was something magical the first time they played together.
What they didn't know while playing regularly in bars around town was what to call themselves, leading to some funny and animated conversations.
"Jay and I were from Ohio, and Joe Don was from Oklahoma. We were calling ourselves Oklahio. That's got to be the worst," LeVox says.
By the time they had set up a meeting with Lyric Street Records, they knew they needed a real name, and LeVox asked a crowd they were playing for to offer some suggestions.
"A buddy of ours came up to us during the break and said he was in a garage band back in the '50s. He's like, 'We called ourselves Rascal Flatts. That should be your name,' " LeVox says. "So when we went into the meeting with Lyric Street, they asked us what our name was. We're like, 'Uhhh, Rascal Flatts?' They said, 'Cool, we can work with that.' "
One of their first big hits was "I'm Movin' On," a song on their self-titled debut album that wasn't scheduled to be a single.
"Gerry House — who's a DJ in Nashville — his wife really liked that song from our album. She asked him if he'd play it on her way to work. So he played it, and the phones just blew up," LeVox says. "There was a guy who called in and asked Gerry about that song. Gerry started talking to him about it, and the guy says, 'I've been contemplating suicide, and I just pulled over to the side of the road. That song just changed my life and made me look at things differently. I'm not going to do it.'
"That song put it all in perspective for me. It grew a life of its own. It was the first song where we saw the input of what we do as an artist."
A lot of things have changed since those early days. That cute girl LeVox met in Alabama who agreed to move to Nashville and sleep on an air mattress is now his wife, Tara. The couple has two daughters, Brittany 9, and Brooklyn, 5.
In 2006, Rascal Flatts recorded "Life Is a Highway" for the Pixar film "Cars." They appeared as themselves in "Hannah Montana: The Movie" in 2009.
"The only thing I've done in 10 years is 'Cars' and make a Hannah Montana movie, to my 9-year-old," LeVox says. "That's it. I've done two things."
Today, there are no more ramen noodles or unpaid electric bills for Rascal Flatts. That problem was taken care of when that first album sold 2.2 million copies. They followed it up with 3 million copies of "I Melt," then 6.1 million for "Feels Like Today." Every studio album they've released has sold at least 1 million copies.
LeVox knows it's been a blessed journey.
"Jay and I went from being from two small towns near Columbus to being world known — you can't dream that big. It's been an amazing 10 years. To think God had this planned for us is unbelievable. I wouldn't change a thing. We really feel like we're still new, and there's so much left to do."