When Thomas Rhett began releasing singles in 2012, he was positioned as a scruffy young singer-songwriter in the vein of Eric Church. This was reinforced with the punchy, flirty country-rock of his debut “Something to Do with My Hands” and the more contemplative follow-up “Beer With Jesus,” though neither of those releases had a huge impact on the country charts. Rhett was nimble enough to pivot for his breakthrough, first trying out the party-friendly sounds of bro-country before segueing to the romantic pop of Ed Sheeran with “Die a Happy Man” and the retro-futuristic excursions of Bruno Mars on Life Changes.
“For me, there was probably a five- or six-year journey I was into a lot of different stuff, listening to a lot of different types of music and trying to make that uniquely me,” Rhett tells Rolling Stone on a phone call in April. “Once I started to slow down and look back at my life a little bit, I was like, ‘Dang, I haven’t really sat down with a guitar in a very long time and just tried to tell a real, honest story from the heart.’ “
Honest stories and the longtime influence of Church loom large over Rhett’s new album Country Again: Side A, the first half of a planned double album. At least two of the songs (including the title track) reference Church by name, invoking the singer as a terra firma to which he returns after his more far-flung musical experiments.
“When Chief came out, I remember my mind being blown at the way he could tell a story and the energy he could have on a record and how he could blend rock & roll and country music so well,” Rhett says of Church’s watershed 2011 album. “I love that he just does him and there’s no shame in it.”
Rhett is also singing and writing from a more grounded, mature place as a family man with a wife and three children. There’s contentment and wisdom in the dreamy, Tears for Fears sounds of “Growing Up”; he gives some explicit instructions to would-be suitors of his daughters in “To the Guys That Date My Girls”; he sings to a friend who died young in “Heaven Right Now”; and makes sure to enjoy the present moment in “More Time Fishin’.” In the traditional-leaning title track, he returns home after long stretches in Los Angeles, pulls on his boots and cranks up the Eric Church. “Man, it feels good to be country again,” he sings.
Of course, Rhett, like Church, is now famous and the two are friendly acquaintances in real life. Rhett recalls his hero reaching out after he’d had a chance to listen to Country Again.
“He texted me, ‘Hey man, I just want to tell you how great I think Country Again is,’ ” Rhett recalls. “I said, ‘Sorry I had to name-drop you there.’ And he said, ‘I’m honored.’ I’m like, ‘That is the freakin’ coolest text I’ve ever received in my life.’ ”
Side B of Country Again will be out later in 2021, when Rhett and his collaborators finish recording it. He says to expect a continuation of the themes he explores on Side A.
“[It is] definitely a smidge more experimental on the production side. There’s some more heart-wrenching songs on that side as well — I just didn’t feel like it was appropriate to put eight songs in a row that were going to make you bawl your eyes out on Side A. We needed some fun in there.”
I went back to your 2019 LP Center Point Road recently and nostalgia was such a big part of that album. Country Again on the other hand feels very much rooted in the present and making the most of today. Was some of that connected to having to slow down during the pandemic?
100 percent. This record, it is nostalgic, but it’s more nostalgic in what I’ve learned in the last two years of my life. There was a shift in me somewhere early 2019. I remember being like, I love all my past records, but I do feel like on every record there was something I was chasing. There was a vibe I was chasing. There was a different artist I was comparing myself to and trying to write something along the lines [of what] they would write. Some of the things I used to put so much stock in, I didn’t put stock in anymore. I was like, I want to write music that I really want to write. Production-wise, we went into the studio for the first time basically from scratch. We’ve always usually had a demo to go off of, but the band and producers Dann [Huff] and Jesse [Frasure] really went there with me and really made this more of a traditional country-sounding record.
I’m glad you brought that up. Obviously, Center Point Road and Life Changes had a lot more synthesizers and programmed grooves throughout. This really does feel raw by comparison, even if it’s not exactly raw. What were you trying to accomplish?
If I look back into the artist that I wanted to be when I first signed my record deal, I think I was 20 years old. I remember going on the road that year and we didn’t have ear monitors. We had four people in the band, I was the rhythm guitar player, which was a disaster [laughs]. But there was something so simple about being able to go play a club with a band without running a bunch of tracks. There’s something I missed about the simplicity of the way I used to write songs. That was like dorm-room writing, like two dudes hanging out in a dorm room writing a song. Those are some of the most fun moments in my life. It was neat to get the co-writers on this page with me of going, “This is the direction I’m headed in and I think I’m gonna be here for a long time.”
How did it evolve into a double album?
You can blame that on 2020. You have so much time on your hands. Everybody wanted to write all the time. You could book three or four different sessions a day and two hours apiece and be able to knock out three or four songs in a day. By the time we were trying to get ready for this album I just had so much content, I had so many songs I was not ready to part ways with. I always thought double albums were too much for people. My little brother’s 15 years old and I asked him, “If I put out a record with 24 songs on it, do you think you would be bored?” He was like, “Absolutely.” [laughs]. So I was like, maybe I should take this and split it into two parts and really allow fans to sink into the first record for a few months before the second side comes out. And when they finally come out together, it’ll be one cohesive project.
It’s amazing how many others have done something similar this year, from Morgan Wallen to Eric Church.
You’re exactly right. It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do. For a long time, it was like, well, maybe we should do 10 songs and call it a day. Because on the other end of the spectrum, Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic I think had nine songs on it and it’s one of my favorite records of all time. Today there’s so much room for music, especially if you’re a fan of somebody. For me being a die-hard Eric Church fan, I would dream of a triple Eric Church album. If you have that much music you think is quality, why not put it out?
Shifting gears for a second, I wanted to ask about the title track of Country Again. You alluded to chasing a vibe earlier, and the song also hints at this. Do you feel like you strayed far from who you were or wanted to be?
My favorite line in country again is “I don’t regret anywhere I’ve been.” I don’t regret anything I’ve done or anywhere I’ve been, because I look at some of my favorite artists of all time — the Rolling Stones are probably my favorite band ever. If you actually dive in to what they were doing, they were chasing stuff too. “Miss You” is one of my favorite tracks from the Rolling Stones, and they were trying to be the Bee Gees. That was their go at a disco song. Every artist, if they’re not allowed to explore, if they’re not allowed to expand and try things, it halts the creative process.
You’ve talked a bit about the influence of Eric Church on Country Again. What did you think about him getting his Covid vaccine on the cover of Billboard?
When he stands for something, he goes all out for it, and that’s something to be respected. And just as an artist, it’s just like, what is going to take for us to get back out there? And that’s definitely the first step of trying to get back to a place where we can gather. His tour is called the Gather Again Tour and I think it’s super cool that we do have something we can do to speed up this process of getting back together with each other and being able to just to sing together.
What kind of changes have you felt personally between these last two albums?
I feel like every three years I come to different realizations. In many ways, over the past five or six years it’s been this mission for more and just gaining more success, gaining more fans, playing bigger venues. That’s always been the dream, right? And obviously it is still a dream of mine to play bigger venues and sell out more amphitheaters, but for this season of my life, I can’t really describe it, but I feel content and I feel like whatever’s gonna happen with this record is gonna happen. If people like it, they like it, and if they don’t like it, they don’t like it. For the first time ever, that’s OK with me. For the first time ever, I’m not on YouTube checking comments, I’m not looking at how many stars I’m getting on iTunes.