Thomas Rhett grins as he prepares to tell me about his latest record, just months after becoming a father for the fourth time. “I feel like every time we talk you congratulate me on a new child,” he laughs. His family were such a focal point of his last record ‘Country Again: Side A’ with songs such as ‘To The Guys Who Date My Girls’ and ‘Heaven Right Now’ referencing his young family.
His latest album, ‘Where We Started’ further talks of his family and reflects upon how life has changed over the past few years. With his family growing at the same rate that his career took off, Rhett had to learn to balance family life with a career in the spotlight. “We feel blessed, we knew we always wanted a big family,” Rhett begins. “It’s a little challenging these days promoting a record and also having a two month old along with a two year old, a four year old and a six year old. I think that the toughest part is that they all need different things at different times.” But Rhett is getting good at juggling family life and music life and separating them when he needs to, “I want to be great at music, but I also really want to be great at being a dad. So when I’m doing promotion for the record, or when I am playing a show, that’s where my brain is. When I’m at home, I’m trying to do my best to shut that side of me off and be engaged with my kids. It’s the kind of chaos that I think me and Lauren always dreamed about and just learned how to navigate.”
This record is Rhett’s best to date as it encapsulates everything that country music should be – life, family and the progression of it all. ‘Your Mama’s Front Door’ is perhaps the pinnacle of that thought process. “Those are my favourite songs to write where a story just progresses from young age to older age,” Rhett says as he begins to reflect on the story behind the lyrics. “I remember dropping my third daughter off at my wife’s mum’s house and I was knocking on her door and this feeling hit me of like, man, I’ve been to this door so many times, in so many different versions of me; I’ve been here as a friend of Lauren’s, as a boyfriend of Lauren’s, as an ex boyfriend of Lauren’s, as a fiancee of Lauren’s, as a husband of Lauren’s, and now as a dad, of mine and Lauren’s kids.” ‘Life just keeps changin’ a little bit more, every time I show up at your mama’s front door’ he sings as he connects each big life event to that door. “I remember coming home that day, we had a co-write, and I mentioned the story. That’s the beautiful thing about having co-writers, they can take the story that you have and help you turn it into a beautiful song.”
In the title track ‘Where We Started’ he finds himself reflecting again on how drastically his life has changed over the past ten years from both a professional and personal perspective. “I wrote this song last year with one of my favourite artists and songwriters, his name is Jon Bellion. I’ve been a huge fan of his for so long. It was the very first time that we had ever written so he came out to our farm here in Nashville, and I watched him catch his first fish, rode with him on his first four wheeler, got to walk in the woods with him, I don’t think he’d been much in the woods – he’s from New York and lives in the city. We sat down to write and he just had this huge smile on his face and it was like, man, look at this place, look at your farm, think about 10 years ago, did you ever think we’d be doing this right now? And that idea turned into this idea of ‘Where We Started.’” As they began to write, thoughts of his family again crept into Rhett’s mind. “It transitioned into a love song about my wife, 10 years ago she was riding with me and eight other dudes in a sprinter van, playing clubs for 35 people and now we have four kids and my career has done way more than I ever imagined,” he smiles.
The end product is one of three collaborations on the record alongside ‘Death Row’ which features Tyler Hubbard and Russell Dickerson and ‘Half Of Me’ featuring Riley Green. For this song, Rhett teamed up with an unlikely duet partner in the form of Katy Perry, and although he’s a big admirer of the pop star, it wasn’t entirely planned. “It was so out of the blue, I wish I can tell you that it was planned,” he begins. “We went in the studio and cut the song and one of my good friends Allison Jones, our A&R at our record label was like, what would you think about maybe having a female feature on this track? And I was like, that would be really cool, who are you thinking and she was like, for some reason, my brain went to Katy Perry. Never in a million years would I have thought to even ask if she liked the song. So she sent it to her camp, and literally the next day, she was like, I feel this song, I want to be on it. When we got her vocal back, I literally was in tears, and I got to strike up a friendship with one of my favourite pop artists of all time. So it was a really special song to do with her.”
However, though Thomas and Lauren are head over heels for each other, like every married couple they have their occasional disagreements, something he addresses in the only outside cut on the album, and the opening track, ‘The Hill’. The song was written by prolific country writers Lori McKenna, Emily Weisband and Jordan Reynolds. “This is one of those songs that when you see that title, you go, how in the world did they write that? The way that they wrote it, it just hit me in such a way, I felt like I was in the room with them. When I got that song, they literally explained an argument between me and my wife in the kitchen over some dishes,” Rhett reflects upon that first listen. “Sometimes songs get sent to you in such a divine way. We have access to so many incredible songs from incredible songwriters.”
Rhett, growing up around songwriters, has in recent years honed that craft and his last two albums haven’t featured any outside cuts. Furthermore, he has written songs for other artists too, such as Jason Aldean’s ‘1994’ and Lee Brice’s ‘Parking Lot Party’ so why would he need writers to write songs for him anyway? Rhett explains his choice, “Over the last five years, I would say that songwriters have quit sending me their songs, because over the last three or four albums, I have made it a point to say everything that I want to say, and not really in a prideful way, I just had some things to say that I felt like if I wasn’t in the room saying them, they wouldn’t get told, from my perspective.” However, this year, he has begun to reach out to his songwriting friends again to see what treasures may be lurking in their unreleased catalogue’s and that’s how ‘The Hill’ came about.
In recent years, Rhett has also become more invested in the production side of creating a record too and has experimented in recent times with using string section to bring the emotion out of some of these songs. “I would say maybe two or three records ago, I started diving in a whole lot more on the production side, I wouldn’t ever consider myself to be a great producer because I’m actually very mediocre at most instruments that I play. But when you’re in the studio with people of that calibre, whether it’s your drummer, bass player, piano player, steel player there’s just something really different when a 15 person string section walks in because I don’t know anything about playing a cello or any type of string arrangement but I do know what I think sounds good.”
Rhett drafted in an expert to help with the arrangement, “We hired a string arranger, who has done our last couple records and she is an absolute genius!” Rhett exclaims, and listening carefully to the album, it’s hard to refute that claim. “Her name is Kristin Wilkinson and she’s incredible. She arranged three or four songs on this new record ‘Slow Down Summer’ being one of them, ‘Where We Started’ being another one and ‘The Hill’. Maybe it’s because I’m such a huge Frank Sinatra, 1940s and 50s ratpack fan, but it’s my dream one day to be able to tour with a string section. I just love the dynamic that it brings. There’s just something about strings that make me feel at home. They’re just so timeless and classic. I think it’s really fun to intertwine a classic instrument like a huge string section into a country album. I think they go hand in hand and they complement each other so well.”
Last time we talked, Thomas Rhett spoke of how much he missed the fans and touring, live music is important to him, and as we’ve established, so is songwriting but recently bringing these songs to life in the studio has captured his heart. “There’s something about going in the studio with a full band, your producers, your engineers, you’re getting drum sounds right, you’re getting guitar tones right. You’re asking your drummer to play different fills on different intros to choruses and you’re asking a guitar player to change the lick from the demo to make it more recognisable,” his eyes light up with excitement as he gets into the nitty gritty of making a record. “That experience of watching a demo come to fruition is one of the most amazing experiences that I get to have as an artist. Then you get into mixing and mastering and that’s a whole other thing because you could sit there for six weeks and tweak a drum sound or raise the harmonies. There’s so many details that go into making a record, it’s so overwhelming sometimes that you just have to step back and play it for somebody else.”
These past few years, Rhett has had a lot of time to write and his next album, Side B of Country Again is right around the corner. “I love that clean slate feeling of, the last record has finished and now we have a clean slate to do physically, whatever we want to do, we can say whatever we want to say.” He now has a core group of writers he likes to work with and a team he trusts to help him narrow down what material to put out next. “Before you know it, you’re staring at 60 or 70 songs that you wrote on the road last year, and you’re putting the people that you trust into a room to be like, some of these are good, but these 10, or these 12, or these 15 are great, and they all say something different. I try to look at an album like, how do people get bored the least?” He laughs.
As he heads back out on tour and looks ahead to his next record, he takes time to reflect upon the making of ‘Where We Started’, “It was such a fun album to make. I love getting to just continue to make albums and continue to find different things to say and different ways to say I love you. I’m always trying to stretch myself to make a better record than I did the last time.” ‘Where We Started’ truly takes you on a journey of self reflection and celebrates growth and change both lyrically and sonically. Thomas Rhett just keeps going from strength to strength as a musician and his family are right by his side, cheering him on all the way.