Fore Play: When He’s on the Road with Rascal Flatts, Joe Don Rooney Hits the Links Before He Hits the Stage

December 19th, 2013

This is an excerpt from the all-new January/February 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, including 14 pages of photos of Eddie Van Halen’s gear and much more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Fore Play: On the road with the country trio Rascal Flatts, guitarist Joe Don Rooney hits the links before he hits the stage.

By Gary Graff | Photo by Joe Vaughan

Walking toward the driving range at Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, Rascal Flatts tour manager Tristan Kirkbride jokes that Joe Don Rooney “basically has a career in the music business so he can afford time to play golf.” The guitarist for the multi-Platinum country group doesn’t challenge that assertion—though it’s surely not his tee-to-green reputation that has the club’s female staff members hovering before his morning round.

“Of course! I got into music because I like golf,” Rooney says with a wide grin when GA shares Kirkbride’s remark. “Actually, I’ve always loved them both. My dad loves golf just as much as he loves music. He always found time for the two and instilled that passion in me too.”

The proud product of Pitcher, Oklahoma, Rooney boasts success in both pursuits. Rascal Flatts—Rooney, singer Gary LeVox, and bassist Jay DeMarcus—have sold more than 22 million copies of their eight albums since 2000, notched a dozen Number One country singles, and taken home nearly four dozen industry awards, including a Grammy and the American Country Awards’ Decade Award in 2010. On the links, Rooney is a solid shooter who can hold his own at Pro-Am tournaments and on just about any course he’s played.

At Oakland Hills—a nationally ranked club that has hosted six U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships, and a Ryder Cup, and was dubbed a “monster” by the great Ben Hogan in 1951—Rooney fires a solid seven-over par 77, despite an opening tee shot he describes as “so far left it’s right” and a three-putt on the seventh green. The lankly Rooney, sporting a multicolored striped shirt and lilac slacks, demonstrates a swing as smooth as any of his licks on Rascal Flatts’ hits. A slick lag putt downhill on the treacherous sixth green for a birdie is one of the highlights of his round.

“The big blessing that we have when touring is that a lot of the major cities that we play have amazing golf courses,” says Rooney, who tries to get out most gig mornings. “One perk of this gig is getting to play them, and I don’t take that for granted. Like in Detroit today, it’s Oakland Hills, and there’s so much history here. Most of the courses we play are pretty damn tough. It’s not like we’re playing a muni somewhere, where the rough is cut down low and you can’t tell the difference from fairway to rough. We’ve also hated the game sometimes because of these challenging golf courses, but we’ve all learned to be a little bit better golfers. And then when you do play well, you feel extra special.”

The connection with his father makes both golf and music that much more special for Rooney. Windell Rooney is an electrician by trade who played country music on weekend nights and golf during the day. He got his son interested in the latter first. “My earliest memories of my dad are going out on the golf course and hitting the ball,” Rooney says. The elder Rooney made a special set of “chopped-down clubs” for his son that Rooney plans to pass down to his own two children with his wife, former Miss Georgia and Playboy Playmate of the Year Tiffany Fallon.

Music, meanwhile, was a passion the whole family shared, singing songs around bonfires at family reunions. Everyone was also expected to offer a solo demonstration of his or her personal skills. “Stage fright was gone pretty early with me because of that, even though I wasn’t very good early on,” Rooney recalls. His father started showing him some chords when he was nine years old. By 11 he had his own guitar, and as an adolescent he played with his father’s bands, plugging into a Fender Twin Reverb amp that was too heavy for him to carry. Later on, Rooney started playing in rock bands but soon learned a valuable lesson from dad.

This is an excerpt from the all-new January/February 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, including 14 pages of photos of Eddie Van Halen’s gear and much more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

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