Touched by Rascal Flatts – One Family’s Story
The Fendas didn’t get much sleep.
A family of four from northern Minnesota, they camped outside the Nashville Convention Center with nothing to lie on but a hotel sheet. But when the doors opened Friday morning and the crowd started pouring in, the Fendas made their way to the front of the line into Fan Fair Hall.
“It was worth it, for sure,” said Margaret Jo Fenda, 18—M.J. for short. The family’s first trip to CMA Fest was a high school graduation gift from her parents, Rich and Patti Fenda.
Sitting amongst other die-hard Country Music fans, the family was hard to miss. They were the ones dressed in lime green T-shirts who couldn’t stop talking about Rascal Flatts.
“We make our own T-shirts for every concert we go to,” Patti said of the shirts she and her daughters were wearing. Their shirt for CMA Fest reads, “Nothing Like Seeing …” followed by the name of each family member’s favorite band member.
For M.J., it’s Joe Don Rooney.
For her sister Kate, 16, it’s Gary LeVox.
In addition to the matching T-shirts, the sisters both have sparkling eyes and dirty blond hair, and they each accessorized with a cowboy hat. The most noticeable difference between the two is that Kate has Downs’ Syndrome and M.J. does not.
“[Rascal Flatts’] music is the thing that brings us together because we can all relate to it,” said Patti. “When we go to the concerts, Kate can sing all the songs, and that is really unusual because she has very low functioning ability. But she can sing a few words to every Rascal Flatts song.”
M.J. knows all the lyrics by heart too, and she’s been to six Rascal Flatts concerts, while Kate’s been to five. Both she and her sister have had the chance to hold hands with their idols during one of those shows. At one, a family friend participating in a meet and greet with the band showed them a picture of M.J. wearing a custom-designed T-shirt proclaiming her love for Rooney.
Later that night, Rooney recognized M.J. in the crowd, held her hand and pressed a guitar pick into it. “I melted! It was a blur,” she said—such a blur that she doesn’t remember what song the band was singing. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s holding my hand.’ I wish I remembered.”
Kate will always remember her moment with the band, thanks to a snapshot taken by her mother. “In this mass of people, Gary reached down from the stage to hold Kate’s hand and sang part of a song.”
“Kate just has a connection with Gary,” said Patti—a connection that deepened when they realized LeVox worked at the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities before he became famous.
“Twenty minutes, Kate,” Rich told his daughter, and her face lit up.
A crowd started gathering around the entrance to Fan Fair Hall, and a young man led the group in some of Rascal Flatts’ most popular songs. M.J. sang along with the crowd, and Kate smiled broadly.
When the band showed up, the Fenda sisters were both glowing. After M.J. took a picture with the band, she was interviewed by a reporter from Nashville’s Channel 5/WTVF, talking a mile a minute about how much she loved the band.
“I went to go hug Joe Don, and I was, like, freaking out. I was like, ‘You called me cute in St. Paul and you made my life!’ And he was like, ‘You’re still cute,’” M.J. gushed as the rest of her family joined her.
They huddled together for a second or two, as if to let the moment sink in, and then tried to figure out where their photos with the band would be posted. Kate was beaming.
“Gary looked at her right away and acknowledged her. They all gave her a hug,” said Patti.
“Joe Don said he liked her hat.”
“And he called me cutie!” Kate interjected. “Yeah, I got cutie! That was awesome.”
As the Fendas prepared to leave Fan Fair Hall, M.J. looked around, taking it all in. She’s enrolled this fall at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., and she doesn’t know when she’ll be back to Nashville.
“With college bills, I don’t know. This might be it for a while,” she said. But she’ll never forget this trip to CMA Fest—and neither will the rest of her family.