Thomas Rhett taking risks, reaping rewards
Four albums into his career, Thomas Rhett has shown that while being one of country music’s top hitmakers, he also has a rebellious streak that has found him pushing the envelope on what kind of song can actually work in the country genre.
This willingness to test boundaries comes naturally to Rhett.
“As far as I can remember, I’ve always really disliked rules that I didn’t agree with,” Rhett explained in a mid-June phone interview. “So like going back to high school, my hair had to be a certain length. I couldn’t have a beard. We had to wear socks with our shoes, you couldn’t wear flip flops. And every part of me hated that. Every part of me wanted to have my hair just long enough to not get in trouble or every part of me wanted to wear socks and then take them off in third period and put my flip flops on just to see if I’d get caught. And so I think that kind of translates in our music.”
Early in his career
Thomas Rhett Akins Jr., as his birth certificate reads, followed his father, Rhett Akins, into country music, dropping out of college at age 20 to take his shot in the business.
Rhett enjoyed breakout success with his first album, “It Goes Like This.” Released in 2013, the debut gave Rhett three No. 1 singles on the Billboard magazine Country Airplay chart.
Rhett’s career has only gained steam since then. His next two albums, “Tangled Up” (2015) and “Life Changes” (2017), both were platinum-plus successes, with his sophomore effort producing a single, “Die a Happy Man,” that elevated Rhett’s profile in a big way. It spent two months atop the country charts and paved the way for his first shows as an arena headliner. “Life Changes” added three more No. 1 singles to the Rhett catalog — “Craving You,” “Unforgettable” and “Marry Me” — while solidifying Rhett’s place among country’s top tier artists, as he was country’s most played artist on radio in 2018.
Now Rhett’s newly released fourth album, “Center Point Road,” looks like it may become his biggest album yet. Its lead single, “Look What God Gave Her,” has just taken over the top slot on the Country Airplay chart after the album debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 album chart.
The commercial success Rhett has continued to enjoy has not diminished his willingness to take risks.
Breaking the mold
On “Center Point Road,” Rhett breaks the country mold with several songs, one of which is “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time,” which seems destined to be a future single. The rousing tune (which includes guest vocals from Little Big Town) features horns and programmed drums and draws from soul, funk and pop, to the point that one would be hard pressed to call it country. The same can be said of the tune “VHS,” a track with some disco in its step, and the album’s opening track, “Up,” which weaves together horns, piano, synthesizers, and a bit of a jazzy touch that might remind some of early Bruce Hornsby.
Those songs sit alongside others on “Center Point Road” that fit more closely with country, but are also sharply crafted and frequently find Rhett reflecting on earlier parts of his life and some lessons he’s learned along the way. “That Old Truck” is a fairly traditional country ballad. The title song, a duet with Kelsea Ballerini, mixes a hip-hop cadence in the verses, but a chorus that is more like an epic country ballad. “Beer Can’t Fix” (on which Rhett and Jon Pardi trade vocals) is an easy-going country tune with just a bit of a beachy feel.
Rhett plans to rotate new songs in and out of his set lists from night to night on tour this summer as he tries to satisfy his growing audience.
“I kind of feel like the summer is going to be ever changing, just trying to figure out what that perfect set list is going to be and making sure we cater to the people that want to hear the hits, but also cater to the people that want to hear a bunch of the new album,” he said.
Visually, he’s trying something different with his show.
“I think the thing to do in country music these days is to have a gigantic video screen, a bunch of lights and then play a bunch of your music videos behind your songs,” Rhett said. “We’ve done that for two years, and what I’ve noticed is when I walk out on the catwalk and you have a music video playing behind you, I’ve noticed a lot of fans start to just watch the music video rather than watching the show.
“We’re not going to do video screens period this year. We’re going to make the biggest light show anybody’s ever seen,” he said. “And we have lasers for the first time this year and we shoot off confetti. We make it like an event and like every song has its own unique experience to it.”