“Having kids makes you change, whether you want to or not,” whispers Thomas Rhett, sneaking away to find decent cell service. When he hops on the phone, a few days after the Fourth of July, the country superstar speaks radiantly about his life. On holiday with 17 other family members, holed away in a house on the Florida coastline along the 30A area, he supposes his 30s aren’t too bad yet. “I guess I’m growing up,” the singer, now 31, observes with an essential cut on his new record, Country Again (Side A).
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The 11-track release, issued right before the summer heat set in, testifies to Rhett’s newfound understanding of self, framed around growing older and realizing that some things are always meant to change. “I kind of regret how much I worried early on. There’s a lot of times early on when I got a lot of really cool achievements—we’d win an award, or we’d sell out our first arena, or we’d have two or three hits in a row. I would look at those things, and I would say, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool, but now we just keep grinding… because what’s next?’ It was always figuring out what the next big thing was.”
With his 2013 debut record, It Goes Like This, Rhett struck a platinum mine, achieving numerous RIAA certifications across such hit singles as “It Goes Like This” and “Get Me Some of That.” Radio airplay and immediate sales success catapulted him into the stratosphere, positioning him as country music’s next leading man, a tastemaker who frequently tailored his pop-country with an R&B flair. “Crash and Burn,” released in 2015 as the lead-in to Tangled Up, threw genre purists for a loop—further demonstrating not only his genre-pushing ways but that he was no flash in the pan. “Die a Happy Man” arrived soon after as the record’s second single, showing that he, too, could pluck upon the heartstrings as all the greats do. Country music is three chords and the truth after all.
Across two more hit records, Life Changes (2017) and Center Point Road (2019), both bowing atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums, Rhett continued flexing his commercial appeal and soon competed alongside the likes of Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. Yet, critical acclaim alluded him —not that it bothers him too much these days.
“My wife and my manager have always said, ‘If it doesn’t feel authentic to you, then there’s no reason to put it out.’ Whether that is super country or pop country or R&B or bluegrass, I always have to say what’s authentic to me,” he says, shrugging off genre criticisms. “On the new album, that was exactly what I was feeling. And I wanted to remind a lot of the people who were like, ‘Man, you’re not country. You don’t even know what country is.’ That’s what I started doing. I just made a bunch of shifts in my life, and my musical path has taken a lot of different curves.”
Country Again (Side A) surprises in plenty of ways. Where “What’s Your Country Songs?” and “Blame It on a Backroad” feel more in line with what he’s built to this point, “Ya Heard” unpacks a particular throwback tilt, allowing Rhett to slide his reedy timbre quite effortlessly into the arrangement. Classic country fits him like a glove. As a result, he’s collected an appropriate level of praise, but make no mistake: he didn’t do it for the applause. He made the record, largely produced by Dan Huff and Jesse Frasure, with Matt Dragstrem hopping on a song, to remember what it felt like with just a guitar in his hands. “Who knows what my records will sound like in five or 10 years, but right now, this is what feels the most natural,” he says.
Things took a hard left nearly two years ago. On the day of a sold-out show, during the 2019 run of his Very Hot Summer Tour, Rhett discovered his pair of old cowboy boots in the back of a closet on the tour bus. He’d long traded those well-worn boots for Chuck Taylors, not only for comfort but they just seemed to feel right—and when he pulled out those dusty boots and slipped them on for that day’s meet-and-greet, something almost indescribable shifted inside of him. “I felt more like me than I had in the last six years,” he confides.
So he decided to wear them for the show that night. And his band couldn’t believe it. “When I first started, I was wearing really tight jeans, cowboy boots, and a T-shirt. One day, I got on the Jason Aldean tour, and I put my snip toe boots straight through one of the grates on the catwalks and busted on stage,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Well, I can’t really do all this jumping around anymore, maybe I’ll change to some Chuck Taylors.’ I remember walking out on stage in Chuck Taylors for the first time. I saw so many people in the crowd staring at my shoes—they weren’t even concerned about the songs I was singing.
“I’ve always been a pretty rebellious person. I’ve never loved rules, and I’ve never loved fitting into a box. I’ve always just loved trying something different,” he continues. “For me, part of it was wearing sneakers and a flat bill hat in country music. A lot of people thought it was cool, but a lot of people thought it was the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The record’s title track, co-written with Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell, emerged from this revelatory moment, propelling him down a path that is nothing short of his true potential. From wistfully remembering his reckless 20s with “Growing Up” to clinging to the present on “More Time Fishin’,” a spiritual companion piece to Tim McGraw’s “My Next Thirty Years,” the record reveals the kind of songwriting brawn Rhett always possessed, but he never had a proper stage on which to showcase it. With Country Again (Side A), he’s no longer hunkering down in his father Rhett Akins’ shadow; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Rhett stands alongside him as an equal.
While Rhett co-wrote six songs with his songwriting legend dad, the viewpoints remain his own. The experience of writing together, reaching as far back as when he was only five years old, has certainly been a crucial piece to the puzzle, both onstage and off. “I love to write from my perspective, but it’s really cool to have someone in the room that’s known me since birth, who is able to impart his perspective on that part of my life,” he reflects. “To write a love song about my wife seems very weird to do with your dad—but your dad can bring in a different angle in how he remembers something happening a different way.
“No one really knows your life the way that you do except for your parents and your closest friends. Our relationship has gotten really tight over the last few years, and I think that our language with each other is to be able to create, rhyme, and make up stories. It’s extra special.”
With last year’s forced lockdown, Rhett and his family hopped in a van and took off into the sunset. Over the next six weeks, they toured the country, zig-zagging through Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, Moab, and Zion National Park. Such a close-up with nature was life-changing, to say the least. “I noticed that for the first time in forever, I didn’t care about my phone. I didn’t care about much, except for the fact that I was with my family looking at beautiful scenery. I’ve always loved the outdoors and always loved to fish. But there was something about being out there just completely detached with my favorite humans in the world.”
Feeling alive again, song titles, phrases, and other random tidbits began flooding his brain. “I’m always one of those songwriters that, if I didn’t have an idea, I would force an idea out. This was the first time that I didn’t try to write every day, or I was just kind of taking some notes here and there, writing a couple of ideas down while watching my kids live life.
“Over the course of that trip, so many parts of me started to shift,” he continues, waxing philosophical for a moment. “Not that my wife and kids were not my first priority, but the pandemic made me realize that even without music and touring, I’m still a dad, a brother, a friend, a husband. That was a huge epiphany for me on that trip, to be able to be okay with whatever happens in the future.”
Rhett soon began thinking about growing older, as well. As many millennials can attest, the transition from mid-to-late-20s into one’s early 30s can be monumental—a cosmic shift re-aligning one’s perception about purpose and love. Life’s impermanence seems to grow sharper in focus, and sometimes, it can be a hard pill to swallow. “When you’re younger, you think your grandparents are always going to stay 50 years old. I still look at my grandparents like they’re 50, 55 maybe. Then, they start to tell you that they’re like 76 and 81. Lauren’s grandmother is 92. It puts it in perspective about how time flies so fast.”
“I look back at my life, and I feel like five years ago, I was in high school. But when you do the math, it was literally 16 years ago. You really do need to cherish these moments, because one day, you’re going to be old. I don’t want to look back at my life and realize I worried my whole way through it. I don’t want to be trying to figure out how to live life at 75 years old. I’m trying to do a better job of really being present and in the moment.
“I’m learning to balance when I’m supposed to work and figuring out how to not take work with me while I’m playing with my kids,” he continues, “and how to not look at Instagram and see how many likes a picture got, while my daughters are asking me for a popsicle. There are little habits that I need to break. I’m hoping that between 30 and 40, I can really come to a place of peace and realize that we’ve gotten to do a lot of cool things in our career.”
Having grown up before and after the advent of home computers, iPhones, and countless social media platforms, Rhett will be the first to admit he’s addicted to his phone. “That’s been something that my wife and I talk about a lot because my wife has done a really good job at distancing herself from social media—not because she doesn’t want to post but she’s like, ‘I just want to post a picture and then just leave it at that. There’s no need for me to go scan through comments. There’s no need for me to go look at the likes—because I liked the photo. I thought people would enjoy that, and I’m going to leave it at that.’
“I’m one of those people that even when I’m with my family, I’ll take some pictures and think, ‘Oh, this would be a great post for Instagram.’ I need the affirmation. I think that’s where the pandemic was so hard for a lot of people. Before that, I was getting affirmation every single Thursday, Friday, and Saturday on the road. If you’re looking for affirmation from your kids, you’re just not going to find that. So that’s kind of why social media has been such a struggle for me. I noticed that when a photo doesn’t get as many likes as my expectations, I start to feel dark and depressed. I think, ‘Am I being forgotten? Is this over me?’ If you’re basing your life off of an Instagram picture, that’s just not a super healthy place to live.”
Country Again (Side A) recenters Rhett’s view on the world, as much as it does his willingness to be brutally honest in his songwriting.
“Heaven Right Now,” a co-write with Akins, Luke Laird, Laura Veltz, and Dragstrem emerges as Rhett’s finest moment on record… I still play this old guitar, but the crowds have gotten bigger, he sings, rooting around in his grief. My kids have never met you, but they all know you from pictures.
While he didn’t set out to initially write a song about an old buddy, who died nine years ago, the songwriting session led him to wonder about the goings-on in heaven—and he soon realized that maybe there were things he hadn’t quite dealt with yet. “I remember watching my wife’s family deal with this. It seemed after two or three years had passed, everyone was healthy and doing well. Then I noticed certain things would randomly remind me of him. I wear this bracelet all the time, and it’s got his initials on it. I haven’t taken it off in nine years. I think when you’re reminded of someone, you’re either past it, knowing that they’re in a better place, or you just still wish that they were here.”
The song, brittle with acoustic guitar and a drizzle of percussion and other elements, blends both perspectives. “I started to think, ‘Man, I miss seeing your face and infectious smile. I miss your personality and sense of humor. And if you were here, you probably would have been at a couple of these shows or you’d come over to our house on Fridays for dinner.’
“It’s one of the toughest songs that I’ve ever written. But I’m so glad that we went the more personal route rather than just generic,” he adds. “I think every time I’ve tried to go generic, and then we get personal, it always impacts me harder. It hits the listener a whole lot deeper when they know that it’s about someone that is real.”
They say time heals everything, and a decade is a whole lot of time. But death and grief can remain difficult to manage. “Especially when you start to watch your grandparents pass away, and you may have a friend that passed a little bit too early, you think, ‘I can either carry this weight for the rest of my life or realize that life is just fragile and I’m going to see that person again.’ Writing that song helped me with that. I hope that I can translate that into when my grandparents start to pass away or I have another friend or relative pass. I hope I can deal with that grief.”
For now, Thomas Rhett breathes in the present moment until his lungs nearly burst. He’s cool, calm, and aw-shucks charming, yet there’s something immensely magnetic about his presence. In the aftermath of Country Again (Side A), he’s currently ironing out Side B (25 songs have been recorded, mixed, and mastered so far). “I think I have the framework complete,” he teases. But do not expect any concrete news any time soon. Perhaps, he’ll continue dropping singles, which may or may not make the record, for the time being. Who knows. He has all the time in the world these days, even if it doesn’t quite feel like it.
As he looks ahead to the next decade, he admits that, if he could, he would have a few choice words with his 19-year-old self. “I wish I could just tell my 19-year-old self, ‘You’re gonna be fine. Even if music never worked out, and you never married, Lauren, the woman of your dreams, and you never did this or did that—you’re going to be okay.’”
“Life is just going to continue to throw you curveballs, and it’s going to continue to hit you in the stomach. It’s how you deal with those curveballs that reminds you of the person that you are. I remember being young and wanting to plan out my future so badly. You can dream as big as you want. But your dreams might not come true the way you saw them coming true. And I wish I could just remind my 19-year-old self to live life.”
Photos by John Shearer.