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Rascal Flatts: harmony and happiness

Rascal Flatts is known for tight harmonies and upbeat messages, but another entertaining portion of their shows is the guitar work of Joe Don Rooney. The group has created "a musical playground," Rooney says.

"The melodies are so great that you have all kinds of ideas for a countermelody. I could play a solo on every song," he says. "But sometimes, it's best to let a fiddle, a steel guitar or a mandolin step in. It's the greatest gig ever."

Rooney, who will turn 39 Saturday, has been playing guitar since he was 11, when his father exposed him to work by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck. He says he later became a fan of Vince Gill.

"I loved how he fused bluegrass, blues and country 'chicken-picking,' " he says.

Rascal Flatts has been touring to promote a new album, "Rewind." The band played a few songs from the album in January in Pembroke Pines during the Kiss Country Chili Cook-off, but Saturday's show will contain more of them, Rooney says.

Concertgoers should also expect a younger-than-usual crowd at the Cruzan, as Rascal Flatts has one of the youngest fan bases in country music. That's partially because their 2006 cover of Tom Cochrane's "Life Is a Highway" was used in the Pixar movie "Cars," but also because their music is very wholesome. (Bassist Jay DeMarcus first came to Nashville as part of a Christian music group, and Rascal Flatts wrote "Compass," for the Sony Pictures film "Heaven Is for Real.)

"We kind of joke about it, but it's really cradle to the grave. Sometimes, grandparents come out," Rooney says. "Every day, there's something negative going on in this crazy world, so we want to cut through that and give them something positive."

He says it's not a deliberate choice, but Rascal Flatts has only one song, "Me and My Gang," that mentions drinking, and even then the lyric concerns nothing stronger than cheap beer ("wide open throttle, Coors in a bottle"). Meanwhile, every other song on country radio seems to glorify boozing it up.

"Hey, country music goes in phases," Rooney says. "When Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard first came out, they wore suits and ties and they played classic style and slicked their hair back. I think country music sings right to the heart of what America feels, and if you want to let your hair down and have some beers, that's totally OK with me."

Rooney has a family tie to South Florida. His wife, 2005 Playmate of the Year Tiffany Fallon, is a 1993 graduate of Fort Lauderdale High School. Her mother, Pamela Baylor, taught at Floranada Elementary for 32 years and her husband, Don, works for the Broward County water department.

Rooney says his mother-in-law's teaching experience has come in handy with his children, Jagger, 6, and Raquel, 4.

"It's unbelievable," he says. "I just sit there mesmerized. She's got that perfect voice for teaching, and she knows exactly the right stuff to put in front of them."

Rooney and Fallon are expecting their third child to arrive at any minute. Fallon's due date is Sept. 26, and Rooney is on call, even during his band's concerts.

"If you see the guitar player run off the stage in the middle of the show, you'll know what happened," he says.

Nsortal@SouthFlorida.com

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