The first time I met Thomas Rhett, I was drinking a cocktail named after one of his songs. It was a party launching his new album ‘Tangled Up’ in Nashville. Talking to him on the phone a month later, I asked if having drinks named after you was a career highlight?
“You know what man, I didn’t even know that was happening until I got there. It was such a nice surprise to see that the menu had my album cuts as whiskey drinks. Hopefully we can start making that a normal thing at the bars we go to. That’d be hilarious.”
The party was being put on by Rhett’s label, Valory Music Group, with label president Scott Borchetta – best known for signing Taylor Swift and being one of the canniest operators in the music biz – standing up on the bar and giving a speech about his belief in Rhett’s talent and artistry.
“I think the record label is very close, you could basically call it your family,” Rhett explains. “You go through so many different kinds of ups and downs together, you ague a bit like brother and sister would and you definitely don’t want agree on everything. But me and Scott have always had this relationship where we are very up front with each other.
If Scott doesn’t like something he will say ‘TR, that’s not your best work’, and if I disagree with something than I’ll say ‘Scott, please give this song one more listen. If you don’t like it, then I’ll take your word for it.’
I think if you can have that kind of relationship with your label president, I think you’re immediately set up to win in the first place. He’s in it for your best efforts, and obviously, you want to make your label proud.”
If Scott Borchetta is Thomas’s industry older brother or father, he’s in no danger of supplanting his actual father, songwriter Rhett Atkins, with whom Thomas co-wrote some of the album tracks.
“Me and dad work really well together. Yes he is my dad and yes I’m his son, but we’re actually just really really good friends as well. So when we sit down to write a song together, there’s no hiding anything. He knows everything about me, I know everything about him. I think that being able to write songs together has actually brought us closer as father and son than before we actually worked in the same profession. To be able to look back and tell your grandkids someday ‘Hey, me and your grandaddy had a bunch of success writing songs together’.”
Thomas also credits his dad with helping foster the musical diversity that has formed his unique sound, which blends contemporary country with the sounds and feel of classic R&B artists like the hardest working man in show business, James Brown.
“I grew up watching Dad watch every James Brown documentary that existed, and now I find myself watching every James Brown documentary that exists. I love watching him on stage, the way that he moves, the way that he dances, the way he talks to a crowd. So I wanted to write songs that I could be free enough to dance to on stage. I think songs like ‘Tangled’ and ‘I Feel Good’ and ‘Vacation’, even though they don’t have as much James Brown influence as say, a Bruno Mars record, Brown is definitely there in the way that I write songs and the way that I perform.”
Another member of Rhett’s extended musical family is recent CMA Awards triple-hitter Chris Stapleton. Many people would look at Rhett, who is pushing the boundaries of what country can be in 2015, and Stapleton, whose understated and organic sound wouldn’t have been out of place in the 70s, and wonder what they have in common.
“From the outside look in, you’d probably think I don’t like Chris Stapleton and you’d probably think that Chris Stapleton really doesn’t like me. But we’ve actually been really, really good friends for about five or six years. Me and Chris actually wrote my first single ever, Something to do with my Hands. Ever since that point we’ve just always gotten each other in a weird way. Chris, to me, is my idol. There is nobody else on the planet who I envy their voice more than I do Chris Stapleton.
If your average person were to venture into Chris Stapleton’s catalogue and hear all the songs that he’s written over the past five years, you’d be like ‘This is the craziest, weirdest sounding stuff I’ve ever heard. How in the world can Chris Stapleton write songs like Crash and Burn and write songs like Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore or Traveler?’ So when you actually break it down to the facts, me and Chris are perfect co-writers for each other because we both love writing things that don’t make sense for us. So I think that’s where we are similar in that way.”
The most important thing for Thomas, and the mission for which he has enlisted all these collaborators, is to constantly keep evolving as an artist. This was very much on his mind when he set out to make ‘Tangled Up’.
“There’s no way I was ever going to make record one again. I can’t stand it when people latch on to what works and they just continue to put that out.
Not that I wanted to completely abandon what record one was, but I knew that my musical knowledge and things that I was listening when I was writing this record were so much different. So there were obviously going to be more different influences than I had on the first one, but we went for it in kind of every direction.
I think me as an artist, the moment I stop evolving and the moment I stop changing, I might as well just get out, because I think that’s the kind of person I am.”