Thomas Rhett knew he had gone too far.
“It’s been four years, so I can say that now,” Rhett says, sitting upstairs at a Nashville studio with a hearty amount of face scruff and a bag of jalapeno Cheetos nearby. Rhett’s talking about his second album, 2015’s Tangled Up, which veered heavily into pop and R&B with genre-twisting songs like “Vacation.” For a kid who grew up on country music in Hendersonville, Tennessee, but also fell in love with Motown, modern pop and the Rolling Stones, it felt like an intentional way to meld everything in his orbit. Maybe a little too intentional, though.
“In a lot of ways it was great, and it set me apart from the artists I was being compared to at the time,” Rhett says. And he’s not wrong: in 2015 there was a glut of twenty-something country-singing dudes making a run for the charts. “But in another way, I was trying so hard to be insanely different that I sacrificed a little bit of who I really am for songs that just felt way too out there.”
Make no mistake, Rhett is still out there — for the country music genre, at least. If he’s showing up to an awards show or a television appearance like Saturday Night Live, he’s bringing along a brass band (at the minimum). He’s just as keen on 808s as he is pedal steel, if not more, and he’s downright obsessed with Bruno Mars (“I think I watched his Super Bowl performance at least 100 times on YouTube”). This all leads to an approach that many find as a perfect way to slide country music into a playful pop space, ripe for playlisting and genre-melding. For others, he’s chipping away at the traditions they hold dearly.
Center Point Road, his fourth LP, probably won’t change either of those opinions, but it feels natural, not forced. This is Rhett’s wheelhouse, a land where the breezy summer jam reigns but a love song doused in heavy high-school nostalgia is never too far away. Rhett still loves conjuring the good ol’ days, but his years on the road (and out of college) have given him enough perspective to realize everything is ephemeral. On “Sixteen,” his hit from 2017’s Life Changes, he’s looking at the passage of time with an anxious hand. On Center Point Road, he’s matured enough to know that the only real mistake we make as kids is wishing for time to pass way too quickly.
“I know my fans want to hear songs about [my wife] Lauren, and songs about my kids. But what version do you give them?”
“Everyone says when you’re younger, it’s gonna go fast,” he sings on “Center Point Road,” a duet with Kelsea Ballerini. “It suddenly hits you like thunder, and you’re gonna wanna go back.”
Rhett spent two years working on the songs for Center Point Road while touring extensively, and calls this album his most “personal,” built on experiences from growing up on — you guessed it — Center Point Road in Hendersonville. For Rhett, who already shares much of his personal life on social media, that sort of analysis gets trickier when you are already existing in front of a captive audience: Rhett’s wife Lauren Akins now has, as Rhett points out on “Life Changes,” her own verified Instagram account. It’s all created a bit of pressure for Rhett, whose fans now know everything from the names of his children to Lauren’s likes and dislikes, to where they might be on vacation at any given moment. Lauren even lends background vocals to “Things You Do for Love.”
“I know my fans want to hear songs about Lauren, and songs about my kids,” he says. “But what version do you give them? It can’t be ‘Die a Happy Man’ every time. It can’t be about how life is just amazing all the time, because that just is not reality. You wanted songs about Lauren? Well, this is a different side of us I thought my fans should know.” What he’s not ready for, yet, are a bunch of songs about his daughters. “I’m never going to beat Eric Church’s ‘Three Year Old,’ anyway,” he adds. “Until I have an idea that is better than that song, I don’t know what to say.”
Rhett did, however, get to write with some of the names on his bucket list, including powerhouse producer/writer quartet the Stereotypes on “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time,” Ed Sheeran collaborator Amy Wadge, and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. Wadge co-wrote “VHS” (“Very Hot Summer”), which is undeniably one of the most “out there” songs on the record — fluorescent, dance-worthy decadence loaded up with synths that Rhett likes to point out as layered with a very country lyric (beer, backroads, not-too-scandalous sexuality). Even so, it still sounds little like anything that someone worried about genres would classify as “country.” Rhett? He’s sick of the genre question.
“I’m always trying to figure out where country music is heading, and this record has that perfect balance of pop-leaning progressive and the songwriting side, which is the truest side,” he says. Still, he sees the comments on social media, the criticisms from those who say he’s just not “country enough.” “The reason why I’m not [country enough] is just so comical to me, and it’s because I don’t have a fiddle. So you are saying if ‘VHS’ had a fiddle, then you’re good? I have so much clarity in my career at this point, and, man, I get it. There are a lot of things on here that are pop and hip-hop influenced. But just because I don’t have a fiddle on my song doesn’t mean I am not a country singer.”
Rhett, unsurprisingly, has been getting down to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” particularly at the gym. And he, like most other humans, is also in love with Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour and how she was able to push country music into more unexpected corners, particularly on “High Horse.” “If you record in a genre, then you are recording in a box and that’s not how music was supposed to be made,” he says. “[‘Old Town Road’] feels like it is part of our format now.”
Toward the end of Center Point Road, however, Rhett brings things back into a territory that might feel more comfortable and familiar to the average country fan. He thinks that approach, mixing pop with organic sounds and his singer-songwriter roots, is here to stay. That’s where “VHS” began, on acoustic guitar, before they decided to turn up the synths and let things get wild.
“That’s just one of those songs that was never meant to change the world,” he says. “It was just meant to put a smile on your face.”