The new project will also mark singer Marty Raybon's return to country music since leaving the group in 1997.
Shenandoah's accolades are many. From 1987–1996, the Muscle Shoals, Ala., quintet placed 22 singles in the Top-40 of the Billboard Country Singles chart -- including five No. 1 hits -- and won the Academy of Country Music's prize for vocal group of the year in 1991. With it all has come an ardent fanbase, of which Rascal Flatts' Jay DeMarcus definitely counts himself a member.
In fact, the very first song DeMarcus performed on stage with his bandmates Joe Don Rooney and Gary LeVox was a Shenandoah classic: 1989's "The Church On Cumberland Road."
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"The first night we were ever onstage together, Joe Don was filling in for a guitar player that we had been using," DeMarcus told Billboard. "It was the first song that I happened to think of that Joe Don might know that we did. We kicked it off and I remember looking at each other as if to say, 'What was that?' It was one of those moments. There was definitely a buzz there with the blend that we had and we were all three huge Shenandoah fans. All of it just made a lot of sense."
Now Shenandoah is making a comeback with its first studio album since 2006's Journey with DeMarcus helming production. The new project will also mark singer Marty Raybon's return to country music since leaving the group in 1997. To say DeMarcus is excited would be an understatement.
"It's been the thrill of a lifetime," he said. "As someone who grew up in Ohio, it would be like tossing a football with Ken Anderson or Boomer Esiason. You never dream of it coming true. I would have Marty Raybon sing lines from some of my favorite Shenandoah songs. I'm sure I wore them out, but I followed them around asking, 'Can you sing this?' I was definitely like a kid in a candy store. It brought back so many memories of driving in my car to college listening to their Greatest Hits album and never once dreaming I would meet them and call them my friends, but also help them to discover some new music."
Even though this is the first time DeMarcus and Raybon have worked together, he's known the singer for about 15 years now since meeting him with his Rascall Flatts bandmates at the now-defunct San Francisco radio trade show Gavin Seminar in 2000.
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"We fell all over ourselves telling him how much we loved him and how big fans we were," DeMarcus said. "We became friends and stayed in touch over the years. I told Marty several years back that if he ever made any new music, I would love to be involved somehow -- at least in writing it, or maybe helping produce."
Midway through 2015, DeMarcus got that chance. "I had heard through a friend of mine that Shenandoah was back together and I just lit up and told him to tell them to call me," he said. "So we got on a conference call and we came up with a plan. I told them that one of their biggest strengths was the tunes, so we needed to pound the pavement and find some songs. We found some great ones -- the kind of songs that feel like instant Shenandoah classics. To hear Marty in the studio singing was such a dream come true. I’ve been a fan of his singing for so long. To work with one of your heroes is the greatest things you can ever hope for."
One of the aspects of Shenandoah's career that has definitely left a mark on DeMarcus and his band is the classic group's song selection. "I think that when you look back over their catalog at their history of songs, they were one of those bands that just got their hands on wonderful tunes -- songs that resonated years beyond when they were released," he said.
"I think the strength of that material was what inspired us the most to keep the bar very high for the material that we picked for our own records," DeMarcus continued. "Marty has one of those distinctive voices. From the minute that he opened his mouth on the radio, you knew who was singing that song. While I wouldn't say that his and Gary's voices are kin to each other, he shares that characteristic of you knowing it's him when the record starts. I think those were some of the ways that we found a kindred spirit with them. We identified with some of the key components of the foundation of their group."
Though DeMarcus can quote you lyric and verse from all of Shenandoah's albums, he also knows that as producer it is his job to take their sound into the future -- to an extent. "I think that was my task from the beginning, so I was settled on that," he said. "What’s great about those guys is they were willing to stretch and be pushed. It was fun for them to get in there and discover a different side of themselves, creatively. I think they ended up being really surprised."
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"With a band like Shenandoah, you don't want to take things and deconstruct them to a point where you don’t recognize them. You want to put a fresh spin and a different take on it, and I think we’ve done that. There’s just enough of the old familiar sound mixed with a new sound and direction that it’s fresh again.” DeMarcus said with a laugh, adding that the band's longtime fans can rest easy. “I didn’t make them a new Sam Hunt and I didn’t turn them into Rascal Flatts. It's definitely Shenandoah."
DeMarcus says he and the band have five songs recorded and ready to shop. Once they have a plan to market the music, he said they will finish the album. "I'm thrilled with the music and feel that the guys have a new energy about them where they're excited to be back together making new music. I can definitely pick up on that from being in the studio with them."
He also admits that seeing a revitalized Shenandoah can only have the same enthusiastic effect on his day job.
"I think it will also inspire us as Rascal Flatts to stay excited and enjoy what we have," he said. You look at how long they've been together and to see them still love each other and have a great passion for what they do. That refreshes me, and hopefully, we can bring that over to the band, as well."