How Rascal Flatts began with the power of hope and faith.
Jan 8, 2010
A faint glow appeared on the dark horizon.
Nashville was close, I could feel it. Goosebumps ran up and down my arms.
I’d made this six-hour drive down I-71 from Columbus, Ohio, so many weekends to sing at karaoke bars with my cousin Jay, who lived in a tiny one-bedroom not far from Music Row.
But this time was different. I was moving to Nashville for good. Every time my truck hit a bump, I heard everything I owned rattle in the back, reminding me of what a huge leap I’d made. The biggest of my life.
I was 27, and knew success in Music City was a long shot. I left behind a job I’d had for 10 years, a job I loved, training the developmentally disabled to work and live independently. Now, nearing that distant glow, I thought about the clients I’d left.
My eyes still felt wet from the tears I’d shared with Ruth, whom I’d worked with for seven years. She’ll be okay. But will she ever understand how much she meant to me?
Music was big in my family. My grandfather taught me to sing my first song when I was seven, “Old Rugged Cross.” I recorded it on a little tape recorder, my high, quiet voice struggling to be heard over my grandfather’s guitar.
I got my first electric guitar for Christmas that year, and learned to play by watching my dad and my grandfather.
The first time I sang in public I was nine, in the Christmas pageant at church. Over the years, my little voice got big. I never took lessons; it was a gift from God. One that I wanted more and more to use.
By high school I knew I wanted to be a singer. Guitar strings and tapes weren’t free, though. Mom suggested I take a summer job where she worked, at the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation. My mom, grandmother and Jay’s mom had all worked there for decades.
“Follow me around, see how you like it,” Mom said.
That first day I watched Mom guide a man down a hallway, pushing a vacuum. She was training him for a janitorial job, but he kept missing spots. They repeated the hallway over and over. He’ll never get this right, I thought. How does Mom do it? But they kept at it.
Finally, at the end of the day, he cleaned the entire floor by himself. He was beaming. He hugged me, hugged Mom. I couldn’t help but smile, his joy was contagious.
I wasn’t finding much to smile about in music. After a stint in college, I played clubs around Columbus, but couldn’t make a living. I was frustrated.
In the meantime, I got a job doing what I’d watched Mom do so well. I trained seven to eight people a day, breaking down, step by step, each part of having a job: punching a time card, packing a lunch, basic conversation.
One of my clients got so nervous in front of people he couldn’t fill up a bottle of cleaning fluid without spilling it. But every day he tried harder. He didn’t let the small stuff get him down.
I didn’t stop dreaming about a music career, but I could see why Mom liked this job. The people are inspiring.
One day I was at the training center when a group of clients came back from the Special Olympics. I was about to turn back to what I was doing. But then I saw my client–the one who’d made all those spills.
That can’t be… He was proudly displaying a medal he’d won racing in front of a stadium full of strangers.
Wow. He’d put aside his fears. Just because he had challenges didn’t mean he would give up. That took a kind of faith I’d never seen before. He took a risk each day, hopeful he’d succeed. I was happy my client had done it. I longed to draw on that kind of courage myself.
At the end of my shift on Fridays, I’d drive to Jay’s place in Nashville. We wrote songs all night and performed them the next day. Often we played to empty rooms.
But one night at a popular karaoke bar, Lonnie’s Western Room in Printers Alley, the crowd was feeling it. I got the loudest applause. It felt good.
A guy in a cowboy hat approached. He offered a weekday gig at his guitar bar down the street. “I’d love to,” I said, “but I don’t live here.”
Jay shook his head at me on our way back to his place. “You have a gift, Gary. Can’t you tell God wants you to use it? You have to move down here.” Yeah, right. Jay had more talent than most, and he’d gotten a few gigs. But he wasn’t making much money at it. Besides, I was helping people.
I left Jay’s place headed back to Ohio, watching the lights of Nashville fade in my rearview mirror. Man, that stage felt good, I thought. Not just the energy from the crowd. It felt like I was in the right place.
Should I turn around? I shook it off. In Ohio I could see success in every person I helped. Who knew what I’d find in Nashville? I prayed for God to lead me.
I was being silly, I figured. God wanted me in Ohio. My clients needed me. Like Ruth. I had been her trainer, helping her be a greeter at Walmart. The first time I met her, she was too shy to even look up at me. Her confidence was shot. She even told me she’d never have anyone fall in love with her.
Over the years, though, I saw her become more comfortable in her own skin. That’s what’s important, not some impossible dream.
One day I met with Ruth, but she seemed distracted, staring off into space. “Is something wrong, Ruth?” I asked. She just shook her head. Was her confidence taking a nosedive again? “See ya tomorrow,” I said at the end of the day, but she darted out without a goodbye. I hoped she was okay.
A few days later, though, she practically bounced into the room. “What’s up, Ruth?” I asked.
“I have a boyfriend!” she shouted gleefully. That was why she’d seemed distracted the other day–it was the day she’d finally had the courage to talk to one of her coworkers, another of our clients. Yesterday he’d asked her out. Way to go, Ruth! I almost shouted.
This wasn’t just about getting a job, I realized. Being a janitor or a greeter–that’s not where my clients’ joy came from. A job was the first step toward living life like anybody else–that was Ruth’s dream. She’d taken a leap, and it paid off.
Seeing her so happy, I felt that pull again, the pull I’d tried to ignore for too long. How many of my clients had I seen get jobs, even when no one thought they could? Every day they put themselves out there, facing obstacles far greater than any I’d ever face.
They’re living their dreams. Is it time to start living mine? Maybe I was at this job for a reason, but not the reason I thought.
I wrestled with my decision for weeks. Telling Jay was easy. He was excited I’d decided to move in with him. I gave my two weeks notice, but telling my clients was the hardest. Finally came the day I knew I couldn’t just say, “See ya tomorrow.” I sat down with Ruth and told her I was leaving.
“When are you coming back?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. She cried, and I cried too. They were more than clients, I realized. They were friends. I was going to miss them all. “I couldn’t do this if it wasn’t for you,” I told Ruth.
Now, driving to Nashville at last with everything I owned in the back of my truck, I felt a feeling I hadn’t known before. I stopped feeling the bumps of the road as that glow on the dark horizon became speckled with the lights of the city.
The Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame. I could picture them so clearly. This is where I’m going to make it, I thought. I was finally living on faith, like I’d seen my clients do. I felt like my prayers had been answered.
It was slow going in Nashville at first. We played in places so small, Jay had to set up his keyboard next to the cigarette machine. One night we played from 9 to 3 and left with 27 cents in the tip jar.
I worked two jobs to pay the rent, building swimming pools by day, delivering newspapers after our gigs. Jay and I lived off ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–minus the jelly.
But my clients back in Ohio stayed in my heart and my mind. Slowly but surely, our shows got a following. One night our guitarist couldn’t make it, and Jay’s friend Joe Don joined in.
By the time we reached the chorus of our first song, “The Church on Cumberland Road,” I knew we had something special.
When we signed our record deal I finally got to feel the joy that my clients felt. I couldn’t have done it without them. I’d spent so much time teaching them how to fulfill their dreams, I hadn’t realized what they were teaching me.
Ruth showed me that sometimes it takes a leap of faith to get where you’re supposed to be.
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