Thomas Rhett Talks About His Life and Music

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.”

That rebellious spirit and individuality has helped Rhett stand out in country music, to the point that “Rolling Stone” magazine recently observed that few artists have done more over the past half dozen years to shape the sound of today’s country. Rhett is taking that sort of talk with humility and grace.

“I think when I hear that comment I look back at the people that I felt like helped pave the way for me,” he said. “I remember when I was coming up, it was the people like Jason Aldean and Eric Church and Luke Bryan who were doing things in country that had never been done before. There was no rap in country music before Brantley Gilbert, you know what I’m saying. There was no shaking your butt on stage and singing pop-country songs before there was Luke Bryan.

And there was no heavy metal guitar and basically rock pyro show before there was Jason Aldean. There was no renegade before Eric Church, at least in my time. So I hope that my music, even though it’s more pop/funk/soul-centered country music, I just hope it’s allowed somebody who is now writing songs is going ‘Well, I was just going to try to play the game and play it safe. Now I think I want to go do this.’”

Thomas Rhett Akins Jr., as Rhett is known on his birth certificate, followed his father, Rhett Akins, into country music, dropping out of college at age 20 to take his shot in the business.

His father started out as an artist and enjoyed decent success, releasing six albums between 1995 and 2008, and notching a No. 1 single in “Don’t Get Me Started” in 1996 before eventually focusing at what has become a highly successful career as a songwriter that now numbers writing or co-writing credits on more than two dozen singles.

Akins’ son has already easily eclipsed his father’s success as an artist, enjoying 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, including the album’s title track, which was co-written by his father.

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 artist, 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,” topped the Country Airplay chart and the album debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 album chart. A new single, “Remember You Young,” is climbing the charts now.

The commercial success Rhett has continued to enjoy has not diminished his willingness to take risks.

On “Center Point Road,” Thomas 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. There’s also a good bit of grooving R&B in “Look What God Gave Her,” a ballad that cruises along effortlessly.

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,” a vehicle in a literal sense for a host of teen-age adventures and mishaps, is a fairly traditional country ballad. The title song, which looks back on high school friends and fun and is 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.

Thomas 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. “It’s kind of an ever-changing cycle, but we’re excited to kind of keep trying different bits, and hopefully the set list doesn’t stay the same all the way through October.”

Visually, he’s trying something different with his show – fitting for an artist who doesn’t always follow the rules of country hit making.

“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. “So we basically kind of went back to ‘80s hair metal days and put a gajillion lights on stage and took a lot of time making each song unique to lights…And we have lasers for the first time this year and we shoot off confetti, we shoot of cryo, we make it like an event and like every song has its own unique experience to it.”

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