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In Conversation: Thomas Rhett

By Ross Jones

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It can’t be denied, Thomas Rhett needed 2020. The ACM Male Artist of the Year is a little sleepy-eyed as he mulls over the year past, worn by the day-to-day of bringing up three children, yet it’s the kind of warm tiredness that comes with all the busy memory-making in a fulfilled life. He’s euphorically spent, you could say. After spending the last 10 years becoming one of the biggest names in modern-day country music, 2020 offered Rhett a chance to re-evaluate. Having given everything to make it where he is today, what was it that he wanted now? The answer, simply, was to be able to take everything as it comes – something that led him to making Country Again, a brand-new double album that’s, according to the man himself, his most progressive work yet.

If there’s a message across Country Again, it’s that there’s nothing more important than being in the very moment. As he ponders over the non-stop nature of his past, Rhett attaches a fond gratefulness to his memories whilst knowing he can’t live that life in the same way any longer. Such consideration fills the record with a sense of understanding that sacrifices have to be made for the good of both himself and his family, and is that such a bad thing? “Thank god we grew up”, he echoes across Side A, relief pouring through as he takes stock and reflects not only on the good times that have been, but just how good they can be in the future - if he lives it right.

This notion of maturity feeds into the songwriting across both records. Rhett’s desire to craft pensive songs, within the exuberant reverie of much of his previous output, shows a wish to be musically sincere and genuine to himself. While he continues to explore what’s possible within the foundation of country music, he also questions its true meaning – stating how important it is for it to hold different value to so many people. “My favorite synonyms of the word country are ‘simple’ and ‘grateful’”, Rhett explains when I question how he defines it. It fills you with a simple comfort that, no matter how someone relates to it, it will always offer a space of wholesome freedom.

As we deliberate over how that has come to impact the decisions he makes today – not just as a person, but as an artist and a brand – he remains consistently open to evaluating how he can rarefy that further. Though in a tangible place of contentment, it’s clear that Thomas Rhett isn’t taking another second for granted.

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Best place to start, how are you doing? Outside of being Thomas Rhett the artist – where’s your mind at?

I’m good man, really tired though. Three kids wear us out, but it's the best kind of exhaustion. It’s been a really cool couple of years though, minus the tragedy of 2020. For us, this is the first time in a long time that I haven't been on the road. In the beginning, that really freaked me out - I didn't really know what to do with myself, without playing shows and being in front of people. But 2020, in the end, was a great way for me to settle down and reconnect with my family. Every single day, I got to put my girls down to bed, wake up with them, take them to school, cook them breakfast, cook them dinner - it's been such an incredible time to just watch my kids grow up. I'm not sure that that would have happened for a very long time if it wasn’t for 2020. In many ways, I'm grateful for being home and getting to dive into my children’s lives. So, minus the bit of exhaustion, we're rockin’.

It’s crazy to think that if this year hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t have had the time to actually stop and reflect. In that respect, it's almost like a blessing in disguise - a silver lining.

There was just so much uncertainty - I'm not one of those people that does well with that; I'm someone that maps out the next five years of their life, and I expect it to go that way - which is probably not the best mindset to have. There was just something so nice about being able to let go and understand that you have today. I’m really learning how to lean into that uncertainty and realise that you can't really plan out what's going to happen - all you can control is what you have today. So, for me, it was a reset that I really needed to have. It’s been 10 years, and we've been doing nothing but tour and then make record after record after record - there didn't seem to be a lot of breaks. I think in anything that you do professionally, there has to be times when you kind of step back and go, “Okay, why did I want to do this in the first place?” For me, it was to sing and write songs. Then, somewhere along the way, that gets away from you, especially if you don't do a mental check of where you’re at in that moment. In around early 2019, I started to slow down and live a little bit simpler; I began enjoying the little things in life, things that I was overlooking for so long.

I think living like that really inspired the whole mantra around Country Again. That song became an anchor for everything we're going to release this year, and it follows this similar theme of not forgetting what’s in front of you. Sure, it's cool to work and to have goals, but it's also great to just stop for a second, take a step back and go play in the mud puddle with your kids. It reminded me how much I missed certain things in life, whether it was just getting outside and fishing or going hiking with my family. A lot of those things allowed me to really slow down and mentally reset. After that, a lot of these songs just started to flow out of my brain and gave me this new direction, but it felt very familiar too.

Do you feel you can refine that into what you do in the future? Is there a way where it all works together?

Man, I think anything we’ve learned over the last two years has to stick with us. If not, we just took a break from the rat race. I think, moving forward, I now have such a cool balance with work and family – I know how to really combine them and be as effective as I can in both worlds. Obviously, my family will always mean more than anything else, but at the same time, if I can involve my family in going on the road or releasing an album, that’s how I find the balance moving forward. I feel like in the last five or six years you weren’t allowed to slow down - the grind is the grind, you have to make money, do better and be bigger. Now, sure, those are great goals to have, but you’ve got to balance that with rest and allowing yourself to take a Sunday and do nothing.

When you come to the realisation of how much weight your words actually have - not just to the general public, but to your family - it becomes a major responsibility.

With that in mind, you’ve always invested yourself in everything you do - not just as a musician. Both musically and vocationally, you're in a position where you can venture outside of the standard concept of what an artist actually is. I imagine you really have to take into consideration what it is that defines who Thomas Rhett is as a brand, just as much as an artist and as a person?

I would say that my kids are a huge parameter of how I do business. I've definitely released some songs in my earlier days that I hope my kids don't sing at school. I want my kids to be really proud of what their dad did, both as a singer and as an entrepreneur. I want them to be proud of the way that I spoke about them and the things that I believe in and stand for. If I write something that I wouldn't want my kids to sing, then it's probably not going to be released on a record. They’ve become the bar for how I will try to live my life - and that’s to spread love and light. When you come to the realisation of how much weight your words actually have - not just to the general public, but to your family - it becomes a major responsibility. It’s a standard that you have to uphold within the brand and the music, so it’s been important to challenge myself in making sure that remains the first priority.

Let’s look at the idea of what country is. You've always stood for not staying in one field, and I wouldn't say Country Again gives up that desire - you’re still crafting the contemporary sound you've always been known for. Is the idea of being “country again” focused on the constantly evolving notion of what that actually means, or is it more personal? If so, what does country mean to you in that respect?

That’s a good question. I think the word country has such a different meaning for so many people. I remember when I started in this career, the word meant if there’s no fiddle or steel, then you're not it. For me, country is so much more than that - it's a lifestyle. Whether you live in New York City or out in the sticks somewhere, I think that feeling of just wanting to live simpler is a part of all of us. There are some places that are faster paced than others and it’s easy to get caught up in that lifestyle, there's nothing wrong with that. But I just desired a little excavation of heart and mind so badly. I've been reading this book where it talks about not building buildings in a place where there’s too many - you have to tear one down to build a new one. When I think about that, from my own heart and mind, I'd built so much real estate in there that there had to be certain things that got demolished. It came from the constant desire for more, whether it was more money or a bigger house, cooler car, nicer watch, the physical things. I think I was putting so much stock in cool stuff. So now there's a part of me that wanted to peel back a lot of those layers and get to the heart of what really makes me tick. It turns out, it was so much more of the little stuff. That's what Country Again represents to me.

This is a reward in a way. You’ve earnt the opportunity to be able to do this on your terms?

Yeah, and there's been a lot of people that have asked whether my fans are going to follow along with this weird shift, and how it feels to take a step backwards when I’ve always been a progressive artist. I don't look at this as taking a step backwards at all. This is progressive for me today. I think a lot of people thought that Centre Point Road was going to be the precursor for my first full pop album - this is the complete opposite of that. In so many ways, writing these songs feels so fresh and fulfilling to write. It's just been a fun process.

What have you personally taken from making Country Again?

I think, for the first time in forever, so much of this was started from scratch. That translates into my personal life as well – I got really into learning how to build stuff, the art of cooking, what it means to build the perfect fire at a campsite. It’s all art and trial and error. I treated all these songs in that way – in the sense of not trying to write any tracks at all. It’s really exciting to say that an album of mine actually has a theme - this is probably the most cohesive album that I've ever made.

Thomas Rhett's new album, Country Again (Side A), is out 30/4 via Big Machine Label Group. Watch Rhett's ACM Awards 2021 Performance below.