by Jessica Nicholson
For Thomas Rhett, Country Again is more than just the title of a two-part project (the first of which, Country Again: Side A, releases today). For an artist who has become known for polished, pop-country smashes like “Die A Happy Man” and “Craving You,” the phrase encompasses an ethos of returning to his emotional and creative center, and delving into the musical influences that first inspired him to pursue music. And, as the reigning ACM Male Artist of the Year tells CMT, those influences include plenty of ‘90s country and Eric Church songs.
“I was born in 1990, and I grew up in a household with a dad [prolific songwriter and “That Ain’t My Truck” hitmaker Rhett Akins] that was a big part of the ’90s country era and there was just something so cool about ’90s country to me. Even songs on the new album like ‘Blame It On A Backroad,’ that I feel like was definitely yanked right out of 1997. I think it’s just kind of a breath of fresh air for me, because I haven’t really recorded music like that in quite awhile, so it felt not only nostalgic, but it felt fresh for me to do something like that.”
Thomas Rhett co-wrote every track on the 11-song album, and as he sings on another track from the project, “Growing Up,” this singer, songwriter, husband, and father of three has done a lot of living and maturing since he put out his first single nearly a decade ago.
Thomas Rhett chatted with CMT via Zoom about his renewed focus on his family, writing during quarantine, the album’s plethora of Eric Church references, and what is ahead for his next project, Country Again: Side B, which releases later this year.
CMT: There are a lot of Eric Church references on this album.
Thomas Rhett: I actually got a text from him because “Country Again” came out, and I obviously dropped his name and that song. He just said, “Man, what a great song.” And I said, “Sorry I had to name drop you. It was a true story.” And he said, “I’m honored.” That was a really, really cool text to get from one of my heroes.
He’s been such a part of my life, and such a part of my career and somebody that I’ve really looked up to as a songwriter and an entertainer, and so it only felt natural to name drop him a couple of times.
You’ve co-written with Eric before.
Yeah, this was probably three years ago. Me and Eric and my buddy Luke Laird wrote a song that ended up never coming out, but we talk with every record that I put out. I’m like, “Hey man, how do you feel about this song? Would you sing on this?” And I think it’s just a matter of time before me and Eric get back in the room, and we actually do get to write something. If I do have a bucket list, that would be on it for sure, to do a song with Eric.
You also reference more than a dozen classic country hits on “What’s Your Country Song.” What was it like fitting all of those into one song?
It took us a couple of days. I’m one of those writers that if we haven’t figured out the hook in a few hours, it’s time to move on. But we had written the chorus first, which I never do. I love to start from the beginning and make my way, but this one, the chorus actually dropped out first, and we had a couple of different approaches for that verse. On that line, “That ain’t your truck in her drive,” and it started out somewhat of a joke, and my dad actually really liked it, and so we kind of went with that.
And so we started taking a poll of songwriters of what songs meant the most to us over the last 30 or 40 years and tried to really tell a story with song titles rather than sounding blatantly like song titles, and then getting into that hook of, “Everybody’s got one.”
Many of the songs on Country Again: Side A, such as “More Time Fishin’” and “Growing Up,” focus on spending more time with family and loved ones. With tours being halted this past year, there has certainly been more time for family and writing and reflecting.
Obviously, no one saw 2020 coming, and I think when you’re not prepared for something like that, you can kind of go one of two ways. You can either embrace it, or you can run from it. And I definitely ran from it for a minute. I was like, “This is not happening. We are getting back on the road,” all this kind of stuff. And then when you finally come to the realization that that’s just not true, you really do just have to come to terms with that. And for me, it took my wife [Lauren Akins] looking at me one day about 50 or 60 days in, and I was doing two-a-day co-writing sessions and just trying to pretend like it wasn’t real. My wife was like, “Honey, you can’t go play a show. Why don’t you not write for a minute and live some life and be present with your kids and be present with me and present with your friends?”
And when that concept started to sink in—because that is so not second nature to me—I really just started to enjoy the day for what it was, the good, the bad, the awesome, the ugly. It really started to translate into the way that I wrote the songs. And we’re always looking for inspiration as songwriters. Me and a lot of other songwriters found inspiration in not being able to do what we do, and the pressures and the weird struggles that come with that, but also the amazing happiness that I think a lot of people found through really just engaging with their family for the first time in a long time. You got to slow down the rat race a minute.
Country Again: Side A has also been a return to a bit of a more rootsy sound this time around. The title track even alludes to that with a line about putting your boots back on.
As on the nose as the song is, I mean, I think if you’ve known me as an artist for the last five or six years, you’ve known that I’ve gone through a bunch of different transition, musically, stylistically. The things that I loved and put so much effort into took a back burner for me in 2019 and I really started to live a little bit more simple. That line is so true, just digging up my boots for the first time in four or five years and putting them on. And now I’m like, “Well, I don’t really need anything else.” That was the first song I wrote on Zoom.
What has it been like writing songs on Zoom?
I was very skeptical of Zoom writing. I just love being around people, and me and Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell were writing. We’d been writing another song for a couple of hours. It was one of those days where I think none of us really were into what we were saying. And it was either, “Let’s just get off and try this again another day,” and I threw out this title that I’d had in my phone that said, “Man, it feels good to be country again.” It just meant, “Man, it feels good to slow down for once. Man, it feels good to live simply again. Man, it feels good to be engaged with my kids again.” And I think we can all really resonate with that to an extent. So many things I took for granted over the last eight or nine years, all of a sudden I’m reminded that those are the most important things in life. That whole song is just about recognizing what is truly important is in front of you.
“To The Guys That Date My Girls” is certainly resonating with parents.
A buddy of mine actually spurred that idea for me. We were just riding around in my truck in Nashville one day, and he was like, “Man, what are you going to do the first day that somebody walks up to your house and is like, ’Mr. Rhett, I’m here to take your daughter out on a date’?” I had never thought about that before because when your kids are as young as mine, I think you think that you have a million years before that happens, but it feels like yesterday I became a dad, and now all of a sudden I got a five, three and a one-year-old. And so life goes a lot quicker than you think.
I remember bringing that idea on the road with me one weekend. I had my dad out there, Josh Thompson out there, and Will Bundy. We probably wrote 55 different verses for that song. There’s so many things that you can say, and trying to figure out how to finally narrow that down, I was just like, “Well, I’m just going to go play this version tonight at the show.” I wrote the song in Alabama. I printed off the lyrics and sang it that night, and it was the biggest song of the show. And that’s never happened to me before.
I knew leaving the show that night that that was going to be a very big song in my career and a song that I have been most excited to share with my fans because I think so many people can resonate to that.
Who inspired “Heaven Right Now”?
Not to get super deep and personal on it, but there’s a friend of mine and Lauren’s named Hunter, who unfortunately passed away eight or nine years ago in a pretty tragic accident. And it was just one of those things that I think you think time will heal, and time does heal for sure, but there’s always things that just remind you of that person. I’ve worn a bracelet that’s got his initials on it for eight years, and I’ve never taken it off.
It was just this thought of, “What are you doing up there? Have you seen your grandparents? Are you older? Do you look the same as when I last saw you?” I think people that have lost really significant people in their lives can look at that and go, “You know what? They truly are in a better place, and they are doing all the things they loved here on earth, but they’re doing it just in a way bigger fashion. That was a really special one for me.
The second part of the project—Country Again: Side B—will release later this year. What can we expect from that album?
There’s a few more heart-wrenching songs on that side as well. We branched a little bit more outside the box on Side B, but it’s actually still being put together. I’m still writing songs, and anything I feel inspired by, we take it to the studio. It may have a few more songs on it than Side A, but I think that the biggest thing I’m excited about is when Side A comes out, you can actually listen to the whole project and really get a sense of what my life has been over the last couple of years, and I think there’s a lot of songs that can resonate with a lot of people in a big way.