Country — what a concept. At least it is on Thomas Rhett’s newly released “Side A” album, in which he lets his more pop-leaning side take six as he digs deeper into his home genre. The titles of the first two singles from the collection, “What’s Your Country Song” (which already went No. 1) and its successor “Country Again,” may tell the tale: The boots are figuratively and literally coming out of the closet.
Rhett is the most reliable maker of No. 1 songs in country music right now, or at least loosely shares that honor with Blake Shelton, who’s still no slouch. With “Side A” and a followup scheduled to be arriving this fall — titled, of course, “Side B” — he’ll be providing radio probably several years’ worth of chart-topper material, should he choose to take a break. Which you’d guess might be in the cards, given how many of the “Side A” songs have a slow-down-and-smell-the-roses theme. He says he’s really taken that to heart, but maybe he also got it out of the way during the pandemic, as a just-announced amphitheater tour in the eastern and southern states (with Cole Swindell and Gabby Barrett opening) will keep him busy at least from Aug. 13 through Oct. 9.
Rhett just won male vocalist of the year for the first time at the Academy of Country Music Awards, the year after taking away the entertainer of the year prize. We spoke with him about tamping down his crossover side for now, and how he’s using “Side A” as a sort of market research for what to include on the not-yet-completed “Side B.”
VARIETY: Some of your past albums are records that I might have recommended to someone who isn’t very well-versed in country, saying, “Don’t worry, there are some just terrific pop songs on here you’ll enjoy.” This probably isn’t that album. It’s pretty straight-in-the-pocket country, with the first two singles being “What’s Your Country Song” and “Country Again,” it’s close to being a concept album about… being country.
RHETT: Yeah. Which is funny to say, you know, as a country artist. And a lot of people have asked, is it scary to do something so different? But for me, I’ve always taken my records as a way to be progressive or just to do something different. And for me, returning to a little bit of my more old-school type sound is progression for me. I think just like you said, as I continue to make records, this might be one of the last things that people would expect from me. A lot of the core country fan base has gotten really used to more of my pop-country. And I love those songs and I’m so proud of my body of work that I’ve gotten to create over the last 10 years. But this one just felt different to me. It wasn’t strategic — “Let’s make this album very traditional.” It’s just what fell out of me and what I seem to be just gravitating toward, sonically, lyrically.
There are songs on the album that reflect on: “Hey, I need to stay home more.” People will inevitably wonder that was a COVID-era thing or you were already headed that way with your newer songs.
I think I’ve known I needed to stay home more for a long time. But when you’re forced to do it, it really just starts to change your perspective. I think I’ve been on this kind of a mission of more for so long — it’s like, let’s do these shows and let’s get to the next ones and do this and get to that and put this record out and then start making another one. A lot of people have asked, “Did the pandemic inspire this record?” And in some ways it did, but in other ways, this record was already starting to be written very early in 2019. And I don’t know, man, something…. my brain just kind of shifted to just a little bit more simple, a little bit more organic in way of instrumentation and music and lyric. And so I was kind of heading this way anyway.
But especially when the country kind of shut down around March of 2020, we were all forced to write on Zoom like we’re doing now. And I thought I was going to hate it, because I just love being in the room with people getting to write songs. And the very first song that I wrote on a Zoom call was “Country Again.” And it really kind of shaped the way for the rest of the project, “Side A” and “Side B,” and it became one of my favorite songs. Because it was just the most honest thing I could say about my life as a 30-year-old. I love the opening line: “I quit hunting with my daddy, I guess I didn’t make the time.” That’s so true — being so busy in my head and so busy being gone, I just wonder how many little moments I have missed over the last five or six years with my kids, with my wife, with my family. And 2020 opened me up to that mindset of “Dang, everything that I truly need in life is right here in front of me.” And as I’ve kind of started to step back from overworking myself, I just became more creative and a lot of this record started to flow out.
You have “Side B” on the way later in the year. Is giving the two albums those titles suggesting that one will show a different side of you than the other, or just a handy way of establishing that it’s a two-parter, and people will need to flip the CD over, so to speak?
I do think that on “Side B,” you will find a couple of songs on there that you can tell your friends about that don’t listen to country music. But for the most part, I think it’s more just a continuation of this project. The whole reason that I split up the records in the first place was just that I really wanted people to be able to sit with one side for a couple of months until they got the next side. I didn’t want to just put 26 songs out, or 24, or however many songs we’re going to put out by the time we have “Side B.” We haven’t decided the exact number yet, but I didn’t want to inundate people with that much music and have them pick their four or five favorites and leave the rest of them in the dust. I wanted people to be able to listen to 11 all the way down, and then listen to the second one, and then be able to put them together and understand the whole story of this record. That was my initial thought about why I wanted to split up the double album.
People are feeling experimental, obviously, about how to release music now, especially if they have a lot of it. Of course there are some who think it’s all about singles and EPs. But we have a lot of people putting out a deluxe edition a week or even a few days after a standard edition that’s already fairly long. And then we had Morgan Wallen putting out a 30-track album all at once, and 32 for the deluxe. It can be a lot to take all at once. You’re saying, “There’s more, but just digest this for now.”
Yeah, exactly. And it also gives us time to like really hone in “Side B” as well. Because we have the songs. Seeing how people take “Side A,” I think, will help determine sequencing, and (determine) “Are there two on there that don’t need to be?” Or “Have we not cut enough songs yet?” Or “Okay, people are really gravitating towards tracks one, five and seven on ‘Side A,’ so maybe these are the right fit for ‘Side B.’” So it does give us a little bit of time to really hone in on “Side B” and hopefully make it as great as “Side A” is.
You’ve had some very autobiographical songs that have hits. The opening track on this album (“Want It Again”) is about losing love and wanting it back, and that probably doesn’t describe your recent experience. But most of the rest are songs that people might think reflect something personal and current to you.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’ve definitely written songs in my past that weren’t really about anything that I’ve experienced — that could have been a second-party experience or an experience a friend had that I found out about. But “Die a Happy Man” (in 2015) was my first bit of, like, this is my life, you know? And it was a pretty vulnerable moment to release a song like that. But what it taught me is that when I’m listening to certain other artists’ music, and they go super personal about their lives, that’s where I find the most relatability with that artist. I remember when I put “Life Changes” out (in 2018), a lot of people come up to me and said, “Wow, that’s your story?” And it’s not mine, but my story is kind of similar. And I found myself in that course of that song.
And I think that’s the reason you make music in the first place, to be able to put your heart on your sleeve and tell people about your life and hope that they might’ve experienced potentially the same thing, or had a friend experience the same thing. That hopefully we can all grow together with this music and bring people closer to knowing who I am as a human and the things that I love. To me, that’s the whole reason we made music in the first place is to relate. To ourselves, first of all, and then hopefully you relate to somebody else.
Just to get really specific: In “Country Again,” you sing about having become less country to the point that you sold your 4-by-4. But I imagine you being somebody who always has a 4-by-4, frankly. So did you actually sell the Silverado and then end up getting another one, or has it really been sitting there in your garage the whole time?
No, every single line in that song is a true statement. There wasn’t any fabricating any of those verses. And I’m thankful that the co-writers wanted to go there with me, because it’s kind of just a strange concept to talk about, you know what I mean? Just like you said earlier, it’s like: “Whoa, why is a country artist releasing a song called ‘Country Again’?” And in many ways, it is on the nose. Sold my truck. I felt like I didn’t need it. “Put my boots away in the closet” — all this kind of stuff.
But the majority of that song, what it means to me is, man, it feels good to be content. Man, it feels good to slow down for a second. And that was really the main reason that we wrote it was to try and get that point across. Especially in that last verse where it talks about “I traded sunsets with my wife for hours on my phone” — I mean, there’s millions of people in the world that can relate to that line. And then, getting to put your phone down and just sit by a fire with your wife, you realize, it was all in front of you in the first place. it just took kind of a swift punch in the gut to realize that, and to be able to disconnect from the world for a minute and really just focus on what’s right there in front of you.
To ask about “What’s Your Country Song”: Did you have even more verses to that song where you name-checked even more country songs, or was it easy to cut it off at a certain point?
Yeah, that was one of those songs that could have been a never-ending co-write. It could have gone on for years of being like, “I don’t know, maybe we should throw this song in there. Maybe that second verse, we should change that song title to this one.” There had to come a point where me and the co-writers listened to probably 10 different versions of that song and finally settled on what you hear on the radio today.
That was a tough one to write because I hardly ever write the chorus first. I love to start at the beginning and make my way through the song, because I think verses always set up a chorus for me. So when I write the chorus first and I’m writing backwards, it took us a long time to understand what that verse concept was going to be. So when we finally decided on using old country song titles to tell a story within a song, we were just all sitting there throwing out every single ‘90s, ‘80s, ‘70s, 2000s country song title you could think of to see which one of those would fit in the story. I thought we did a pretty good job of mixing old-school country with a couple of new, current country singles as well.
Your dad’s name (songwriter Rhett Akins) shows up in these credits a lot. Isn’t that more so than for one of your usual projects?
Yeah, way more. My dad and I have always at least had a couple of songs on every record and, gosh, we wrote my first few No. 1s. We wrote “Life Changes” together. We wrote “Look What God Gave Her” (a 2019 single) together. But on this one, I was on tour in 2019, and he opened for me the whole year. And so like every single day it was like, what are we going to do, except write songs? So my dad was out there for every single song we wrote in 2019, and some of the coolest songs I got to write with my dad, especially “To the Guys That Date My Girls” — that was a really neat one to write with my dad. And we wrote a lot more on “Side B” as well. It’s pretty special when you get to kind of share not only that father-son relationship but also a co-writer-buddy relationship with your dad.
“Heaven Right Here” has a lot of specificity to it, even names, so it would seem to have to do with a death that you or one of the co-writers experienced, to include that many details.
Yeah, that was one of those ones that it was like, I’m going to go all the way in or I’m not going to do it at all. I think that song kind of started pretty generic. We had that title, and “I wonder what you’re doing in heaven right now.” We started writing it just to kind of make a story, but it was like, this is just not my style. I’ve got to go in and put some names in there and really tie it into my experience with loss and how hard that can be on people. I really wanted to write it from my perspective of how every time I think about this person, I’m just wondering what he’s doing right now, like while life is moving on as usual for me and things are changing. Like, are you older, or do you look exactly how I knew you when you were here on earth? It was a really tough song to write, but I’m really glad that we wrote it in that much detail as well.
Was this a buddy or a relative you were writing about?
It was a buddy, for sure, a buddy that my wife grew up with and I became friends with really well when I was about 14 or 15 years old. That’s going to be a tough one to sing (live).
You’ve had 16 of your songs land at No. 1 on the Billboard country airplay chart. At times, you’ve had some amazing streaks going. Not counting the all-star group gospel single “Be a Light” (which reached No. 2), you’ve had your last 10 songs in a row go No. 1. Does that put pressure on you in writing songs and picking singles? Is there any fear of putting something out that will break the streak?
I think certain songs may be more apt to be a hit or a No. 1 song. But sometimes I think you’ve got to go with your gut every now and then. My manager always puts it so well. She’s always like, “Would you be happy if you put this song out and it died at No. 40 on the radio?” And if the answer is yes, then that should definitely be the choice, you know? There were definitely a couple of times in my career where I was like, “You know what, this is pretty dang risky.” But I was prepared for this song to not do well, because it was just such a gut thing. And usually in the end, even if those songs don’t become hits… I had a song very early on in my career called “Beer With Jesus” that stalled in the top 20. And when you’re that young of an artist, you think that’s a career killer. But here I am 10 years later and it’s still one of our most requested songs to play in a concert. So just because a song isn’t No. 1 doesn’t mean that it didn’t impact a lot of people. But when it comes to picking out singles, I definitely don’t want to put out six ballads in a row. There’s a time for meaningful songs and there’s a time for just beer-drinking songs.
With this album having so much Dobro and mandolin and banjo — and you’ve got Dann Huff breaking out to the ganjo on one song — does that mean you’ve got to take more of those instruments out on the road?
Yeah, for sure. We’ve had the same piano player for a long time, who was also doubling on electric, acoustic and background harmony. And so we finally decided to relieve him of his piano playing, and I actually got to hire an amazing piano player, so that my buddy Josh could just take acoustic and sing harmony. And this year we actually added a steel player for our band, which is something I’m really excited about. Never had a steel player, but it seemed like steel was so relevant on especially this side of the album that it’s just something that I couldn’t really do without. Hopefully in the future we can add somebody that can play mando and banjo and fiddle too, but maybe that’ll be more in the 2022 year order.