When Thomas Rhett released his first single "Something to Do With My Hands" to radio, President Barack Obama was still in his first term. Rhett got his first award nomination for New Artist of the Year at the 2013 American Country Awards. Since then, he's received a "Best New" or "Breakthrough" nomination of some sort every year — including 2016 — despite being on his second album and seventh single overall.
But when Rhett woke up yesterday to news of the Academy of Country Music Awards nominations, he was surprised to find a trio of nods. In addition to a New Male Vocalist nomination, his 2015 album Tangled Up is a contender for ACM Album of the Year and his song "Die a Happy Man" — which just came off a multi-week run at Number One — is nominated for Single Record of the Year.
"For the past three years I feel like I've been nominated for kind of the same award and it's usually been New Artist or something like that, which has been great, but it's really cool to finally be into a different category," Rhett tells Rolling Stone Country.
Tangled Up was a risky release in some ways, with its bleeding-edge use of pop production tricks, but it turned out to be an unexpectedly fresh and rewarding listen. Getting the Album of the Year acknowledgement, nestled among heavyweights like Eric Church's Mr. Misunderstood and Chris Stapleton's Traveller, was an affirmation of Rhett's efforts.
"Single Record of the Year and New Vocalist were such a blessing to see, but when I saw that I was up for Album of the Year, that's when I started to be like, 'What in the world, this is crazy!'" he says. "That one really got me in a pretty different way."
The Album of the Year category may hold some greater significance for country music as well. Along with Rhett scoring his first nomination in the category, Chris Young, Sam Hunt and Chris Stapleton are all getting their first ACM Album of the Year nods. It's hard not to see it as a big shift in voter preferences and an ushering in of country's future. In Rhett's case, he's just happy people dig what he's done.
"Any time you're nominated for anything it's a true blessing and something you should be really excited about, but it's sort of time to not be considered new anymore because I don't really feel like I'm new," he says. "I'm just glad people still see me as fresh. I wish there was a fresh country artist category, rather than new."
Still, the full significance of those major categories nominations has yet to set in for Rhett — he's remarkably even-keeled about the honor, which he attributes to simply not having any frame of reference for the feeling.
"I don't know what it feels like to be nominated for three awards, so I'm sorry if my reaction is not what you're looking for," he says. "I've just never experienced it before."