Interview: Thomas Rhett Slowed (Way) Down to Create ‘Country Again, Side A’
When 2020 began, Thomas Rhett was at a high point in his career: His 2019 Very Hot Summer Tour was an amphitheater-level party, night after night, and "Remember You Young" — the second single from his Center Point Road album — had just become his eighth-straight country radio No. 1. Personally, the singer and his wife, Lauren Akins, were preparing to welcome their third child: Lennon Love, another girl.
And then, everything came to a screeching halt.
"For, like, the first 30-40 days of quarantine, I was freaking out, because I did not know what to do," Rhett admitted during a recent roundtable conversation with media members. He had an album to promote and a summertime tour — the Center Point Road Tour, now set for the summer of 2021 — to prepare for.
"I was like, 'We're supposed to be in rehearsal. We're supposed to be on the road. We're supposed to be doing this,'" Rhett recalls. "And my wife was like, 'Honey, you have to realize that you can't do this right now, so maybe why don't you just take a step back and live some life.'"
Lauren's words were, as it turned out, exactly what Rhett needed to hear. He didn't write any new songs for about two months; he's pretty sure it's the longest he's ever gone without songwriting.
Instead, Rhett leaned in to what the pandemic was forcing nearly everyone to do: slow down. He spent time with his family, and used all of that unexpected free time on some favorite activities: fishing, hunting, hiking — you know, "country" stuff.
"I think the word 'country' can mean a million things, and for me, the word 'country' means simple — that would be my favorite synonym for the word," Rhett says. "With the year that we had in 2020, I think a lot of us were forced to not do what we do for a living and forced to slow down, and really forced to recognize, 'What are your blessings in life? And what are you grateful for?'
"And for me, that was the outdoors. That was getting outside again: going fishing again, going out hunting again, going out West and hiking with my family," he continues. "Those are the things that I used to love to do so much, and then life just kind of got in the way."
Hard work is important, Rhett stresses — and, when you're a musician, it can be pretty fun, too — but, he adds, "I think a lot of this has just been grinding without realizing how hard we're actually working."
When Rhett finally sat down to write songs again, the first song he wrote was "Country Again," his current single and the title track of his brand-new album, Country Again, Side A, released on Friday (April 30).
"I had that idea in my phone for so long and had no idea how to write it. It just looked weird on paper, you know?" Rhett remembers of the song idea. But, when he linked up with frequent collaborators Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell, they knew just where to take it.
"And then, the songs just kind of started flowing out of me," Rhett says, likening the process to the time he "was really, really obsessed with golf" but shot his best game only after taking a break for a couple of weeks.
"Over the last three records — which I'm beyond proud of ... but there's always been someone in my sights that I was kind of following ... Like, in the last few years, it was like, 'How do I make my show cooler than Bruno Mars' show?' Or, 'How do I make this record feel like [Chris] Stapleton meets Justin Timberlake?'" Rhett reflects. "And finally, this year ... I just started to sit down with a guitar and I was just like, 'What do I want to write? ... What makes me happy to say?' And it took a lot of the weight off my shoulders."
Rhett kept asking himself those questions, culling together an 11-track album, produced by Dann Huff (with assistance here and there from Jesse Frasure and Matt Dragstrem) and co-written with Gorley, Crowell, Frasure, Dragstrem, Josh Thompson, Josh Miller and more. As a whole, the record leans into traditional instrumentation and melodies — more Stapleton than Timberlake, to continue Rhett's analogy.
Rhett's father, "That Ain't My Truck" singer and lauded songwriter Rhett Akins, co-wrote six of the songs. In recent years, Thomas Rhett says, their working relationship has gone from one of asking his dad to find him a hit to something more equal.
"My dad is always my first phone call for a bus trip or a writing session," says Rhett, who brought his dad on tour with him in 2019. Akins opened each show, which conveniently meant he'd be around for any and all writing sessions.
"The majority of this record came from just being on the road with my dad and getting to write songs with him ...," Rhett adds. "It's really cool to be able to kind of use that craft with your dad. And it really translated on this album as well."
Indeed, much of Country Again, Side A predates Rhett's pandemic-inspired bout of self-reflection. If 2020 hadn't played out as it did, he's pretty sure his music would have shifted, "but maybe not as intense[ly]."
"I think I was kind of heading this direction anyway -- just kind of more of that, 'Let's tell a story,' and it intensified when I got to be at home so much," Rhett muses. "I started to notice certain things in my life that I had not put enough weight on the last three or four years ... I think life got ahead of me a little bit, and so it was a really nice reset, and I think that reset allowed me to be able to go fully in this direction."
In 2022, Rhett will celebrate the 10th anniversary of his debut single, the Top 20 "Something to Do With My Hands." He was 21 years old at the time -- engaged, but not yet married, and still years away from having three young daughters.
Rhett's music has become more nostalgic and personal in recent years, as he's grown up and as his spotlight has expanded to include the rest of his family, but still, something about this round of introspection felt different. This time, Rhett says, "I was just trying to be a songwriter ... and [I] just really wanted to write straight out from the heart, exactly what I was feeling."
"I feel like I was taking 10 years' worth of knowledge — from the road to getting married, being a dad to, today, hitting the year 2020 — and it all kind of just kind of sinks in, about, 'What kind of person have I been in the last 10 years?'" says Rhett, "... and so, I would say that, as much as this record is looking back, a lot of it is kind of a timestamp of today.
"I'm a pretty nostalgic person — I love to look back and figure out things that I've learned over the last few years — but it's become easy for me to be vulnerable in songwriting ...," he continues. "I love writing songs that really just kind of sum up where I'm at in life today, based on what has happened in the past."
Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Rhett, the artist says, is still there, deep down inside his 31-year-old self — even if he's now sitting in the car with his kids behind Nashville's ubiquitous pedal taverns, rather than sitting on one of them with his buddies (and is a far more patient person thanks to Willa Gray, Ada James and Lennon Love).
As Rhett said in 2018, "Ain't it funny how life changes?" In 2021, in the new song "Growing Up," he's professing that he's "still the kid I was, just a little less Jack in my cup ... a little less jack-up-my-truck ... a little less temper and a lot more love."
"I noticed, every few years, there's certain things in my lifestyle that change, and they just kind of remind me of like, 'Man, you are, every year, growing up and wising up and maturing a little bit,'" Rhett says of the inspiration for that song, co-written with Matt Dragstrem, Josh Miller and Josh Thompson. "I think a lot of people relate to that song because we can all go back to our 19-year-old selves and remember how dumb we were, and all of a sudden, you're 25, married, with three kids, and you've got to grow up -- you're forced to."
Country Again, Side A is the first of two albums expected from Rhett in 2021. Side B has not yet been officially announced; in fact, Rhett admits, it's not even done yet, though he's hoping to complete it in the next couple of weeks.
But when he moves forward from this centering project, Rhett says he hopes the life changes he's made during this time don't fade away as his tour kicks off and his family's calendar fills up again. He wants to "take a lot of the stuff we learned and transport it in the future and hopefully live a more balanced life."
"There was there was a moment there where I was feeling like, 'Is this ever going to return back to normal?'" Rhett says. "[Now] 'Being where my feet are' is kind of my new motto."
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