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FRONT AND CENTER:
THOMAS RHETT

Center Point Road in Hendersonville, Tenn., is where everything happened for Thomas Rhett growing up: hanging with friends, finding love, driving too fast, losing himself. At a time when the two-time Academy of Country Music Vocalist is truly coming into his own, it’s fitting that the most coherent album yet from the writer/artist behind “Die a Happy Man,” “Something to Do With My Hands,” “Marry Me” and the viral “Look What God Gave Her” takes its title from such a powerful place in his coming of age.

The son of ’90s almost-superstar Rhett Akins, Rhett is determined to keep his eye on the music, to make it mean something and to reflect the world his father—the 2018 ACM Songwriter of the Year and a two-time BMI honoree—worked hard to make sure his children knew. Sheltered from showbiz, Rhett’s world was anchored by school, sports, trucks, girls and music.

Working with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, One Direction writer/producer Julian Bunetta and Bruno Mars-associated creatives The Stereotypes, Rhett nonetheless maintains his roots throughout Center Point Road. And when he casts about for guests, he’s more likely to call on good friends Jon Pardi or Kelsea Ballerini as he would harmony specialists Little Big Town. These connections keep him grounded, even as he brings a pop shimmer to “Blessed,” “VHS” and “Look What God Gave Her.”

Rhett performed the latter as one of the rare country artists to be chosen as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live. That performance ignited some Pop and Adult Contemporary airplay. But could the second-generation country star cross all the way over? HITS’ Holly Gleason dives deep to find out.

Center Point Road feels like your most centered and intentional album.
I was talking about this with my wife—and I’d heard people say it before. When I turned 29, I started to care a lot less about things that used to be really important to me. My birthday was March 30, and within a week I felt very clear about what I stood for. All the search for everybody’s opinions, navigating 50 people’s ideas just wasn’t that important.

How so?
Over the years, there were songs I wrote because they were [stylistically] hot at the time. It’s not that I’m ashamed of the tracks, but it was more chasing something than doing what was me. I’m lucky, because even then I had [co-producer] Dann [Huff], who’d say, “I know you want to make this track really different and out there, but are you sure?” He was the glue when it came to pushing the boundaries, but also not pushing it too far.

And he’s the unifying agent as you go exploring.
I’ve always been the kid who enjoyed moving on to and through different phases. One week I’m into skateboarding, the next I’m playing drums.

Your influences are rangy too.
Yeah, Tom Petty to Bruno Mars [laughs].

The other constant seems to be Jesse Frasure.
When I started working with Jesse, I found my core collaborator as a producer and a co-writer. He’s very unbiased about picking the best songs, whether he wrote them or not.

He’s also out on tour with you.
Literally. He deejays between sets to keep the energy up, maintain the fun. And it gives him a reason to be out on the road with us. We’ve gutted a bus and loaded it up with his compressors, mics, keyboards, all kinds of gear. From 10am. until meet-and-greet, we’re writing songs. Josh Thompson came out and we got 10 songs in three days. I spent the last year writing 250 songs; from that, we pick the album.

We have a creative trust, where we sift opinions: my wife, family, collaborators, Dann, Jesse, [Big Machine A&R head] Allison Jones. It’s a double-edged sword; maybe they’ll all love it, but Allison will come back with, “I like it, but maybe it’s not your best work.” I love opinions—until I get one I don’t like. Suddenly, I’m discounting the other 90%. But it’s important to have that other person, not that they’re negative, but because they know what you’re capable of and they’re pushing you.

Are you more responsive to criticism if you trust the person?
Julian Bunetta. The moment I hated Julian the most was also the moment I knew I always wanted him to be part of my music.

The guy who produced One Direction?
Julian and John Ryan came out, and I was playing him five or six songs late one night that I thought were masterpieces. I played one after another, and he didn’t say anything. He was just real quiet. Finally, I said, “Well...” And he says, “The hook of this song? It may be the worst hook I’ve ever heard in my life.” He was willing to sacrifice a friendship rather than lie to me or do what most people do. I knew right then that if I were going to work with Julian Bunetta, he was going to make me write absolutely the best line every line—and the same goes for the melody, the rhythms, the hooks.

Tangled Up [his second album, released in 2015] was the first time I strayed off the course of my traditional path. My first record only sold 100,000 copies for a reason—and I wanted to grow. “T-Shirt” and “Crash and Burn” were a little different—and they gave me permission. So I worked with people beyond the obvious ones. It paid off.

You took it further with this album, co-writing with Ryan Tedder and co-producing with The Stereotypes.
I figured maybe if I wrote with Ryan and Julian, who get all those pop placements, I might get on a song like “The Middle,” like Maren did.

But you came out of those collaborations with the most country songs on the record.
It’s funny, right? On the second day, I just picked up a guitar and said, “I’m just gonna take you on a trip to how I write a song.” Because from L.A. to Tokyo or New York, you can always strip it back to that basic guitar and voice. Ryan was able to go there with me, because he’s from Oklahoma; he knows all those things. Julian too. As crazy as it was, it was a perfect storm. They were trying to come up with that great pop song. We ended up driving straight into my roots.

Same thing with Bruno’s guys.
We had the best time for two 10-hour days. “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” was a vibe and a feeling, but you really felt it.

I think people really love getting to write a country song.
If it were up to me, I’d write a sad ballad every day. I’m not a sad person at all. If you come to my shows, you know that’s not what I do. Cheeky titles, cheeky choruses. But I felt a lot more freedom to just do those 16 tracks. I realized not every song is lyrically life-changing, but they all have something that’s important to feel, express. I thought about this for years. In a co-write, maybe you want to write something that makes you roll the windows down or have fun at the lake.

But there’s more to it.
I wear my heart on my sleeve 24 hours a day. My mom would tell you that about me, always. But I didn’t do that until “Die a Happy Man.” My wife and I as a couple are very transparent. We will bring up any topic in conversation. At a concert, I think people know there aren’t any false sentiments. But after that song, I asked myself, “Why have I just been writing normal songs that felt like hits instead of songs about my life?” I’d rather put out a song like “Life Changes” that dies at #40 than something that just sounds like I’m chasing whatever’s working. My fans need something that isn’t just rainbows and butterflies as a love song.

“Dream You Never Had” tackles your wife’s reality, and what she lives with.

It’s probably the hardest song I’ve ever written. It’s that personal level where I’m opening her truth up. Because if you’d asked my wife at 18, “Do you wanna marry a country singer?” she’d have said no. And I remember saying to her, “Look, I love you and I wanna marry you. But you may hate this life. I’m gonna be gone a lot, and you’re gonna be alone handling things—or you’re gonna be out there with me away from everything in your life.” I wanted to be honest with her, because it’s not what people think. She has to give a lot to me, and I have to give a lot to her—not have to but want to.

As the son of an artist, you had first-hand knowledge.
Yeah, I knew what a radio tour was at 12; I knew what putting a record out was at 15. I knew what it was like to have a song put on hold, then not get cut. I saw it all happen with my dad. I saw him succeed and fail, and then decide to go ahead and go back to it. He could’ve done anything. He was so glad to be off the road, to be home more. He was like, “I can’t bring that much baggage into my home,” so we never really saw it. But after his record deal, he went out and did a developmental publishing deal—just like any young songwriter coming to town.

Turned out OK.
Yeah [laughs]. My dad can sit in a room with T-Pain or George Strait or Birdman and hold his own. When you feel you’re as talented as other people and you keep doing it? Even at 50 years old, he’s one of the most intriguing people in this business. To see him onstage, telling stories about the songs, the artists who cut them or his own career is magic.

Did he help you or discourage you?
When I was in college, I told Dad, Dallas Davidson and Bobby Pinson I wanted to try to write songs. I was terrified, said maybe six words. It was charity work for my dad. After that, he said, “OK, if you wanna do this, that’s the level you need to be aiming for.”

Was it meant to run you off?
I’d have never got to showcase for people opening for Bobby Pinson playing nothing but Eric Church covers if it wasn’t for Dad. He wanted me to have a real shot, or to know what it was like.

Beyond that, did he give you any advice?
Yes, he told me, “You will get let down so many more times than you will get affirmed or lifted up. You have to know that, and not need it.”

And now that you’re a big deal?
Dad said, “Promise me you will soak in the good moments. Just pause and feel it, because they don’t last very long.”

Is that something you need to work on?
I’m a pretty normal guy who really does like the simple things. But I have a hard time cherishing that stuff. I hate that I get caught up in the charts, the idea of “Is this streamable?” Even when things are pretty good, I worry it could be better.

On the plus side, you got the girl.
It was a sliding-door moment, where it could’ve gone the other way. We were dating other people. In another world, we might have married them. But there was always something different about Lauren, and we both felt it, but we never figured it out. The night of her sister’s graduation party, we were buddies and I was there. I’d loved that girl since high school, and I told her father how I felt. He said, “If you don’t tell her, I’m going to.” It was a total Ryan Gosling moment. I said to her, “I just want to kiss you one time. If you don’t feel anything, we can go back to being friends.” I’ve learned this: It’s wise to confront things instead of holding them in. That creates resistance instead of resolution.

And you two go all the way back to Center Point Road.
The way that song was written: There’s this kid named Cleve Wilson, who goes to Belmont. He built this track, because that’s what kids do—and he sent it around to some folks. It had that “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran thing, the anthemics of “Small Town” or a song from Friday Night Lights, so we decided to try to write to it.

We decided after the first verse that it needed to be a duet. So we wanted someone with the same kind of mindset, who’d understand what this was. I sent it to Kelsea Ballerini, who hosts the CMA Music Fest Special with me, and asked, “Would you be down for singing this with me?”

We got an immediate response. When I ask people, it’s usually, “What else you got?” But I think she understands places like this—and what they meanas well as I do.

Only a handful of country artists—Kacey, Stapleton, Maren—have gotten to do SNL.
They wanted two new songs from an unmastered album. They called on a Friday and wanted us the week after that one. We had to get in a rehearsal studio, work the songs up, really scramble. But I’d been trying to get on there for two years, and I wasn’t gonna not make it happen.

Was it what you expected?
I’d never been around that many big stars in one place. The whole cast, Ben Stiller, Paul Rudd. I shared a dressing room with John Mulaney. It happens so fast, and you see all the pictures of people like Chris Stapleton, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars. They handed me the card that said, “Hi! I’m Thomas Rhett, and I’m a guest.”

It’s crazy, but it’s your life now. Very few people experience that.
Stapleton gave me a bit of advice when things started to happen. He said, “You always have to remember you’re not trying to be a pop singer. You’re a guest in their world.” With a song like “Look What God Gave Her,” he told me, “You didn’t write it for the pop charts; you wrote it for your wife. If you’re lucky, pop fans are gonna hear it and go, ‘Who is that guy?’ Maybe they go check out your music and like it. But that’s all you need.”

 

 

Rhett with CMA Fest co-host Kelsea Ballerini. The ABC special airs on 8/4.

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