Don’t be misled by the Southern drawl or the Nashville pedigree: 26-year-old Georgia artist Thomas Rhett is a label-defying pop superstar in the making.
With two hit albums under his belt including this year’s Tangled Up, the son of veteran singer-songwriter Rhett Akins is part of a new Nashville class that folds all manner of musical influences into its music.
For Rhett, a fun-loving and clever songwriter, this means his records owe as much to funky R&B, classic rock and ’90s hip-hop as they do to the new-traditionalist twang of his dad’s generation. Fans will get tastes of all that when he opens for Jason Aldean at Gexa Energy Pavilion this weekend.
On Tangled Up, Rhett applies his slightly gravelly voice to carefree R&B party tunes ("Vacation," “I Feel Good”) and electric-guitar-backed soul (“Die a Happy Man”). He kicks out light funk in the song-of-summer contender, “T-Shirt.” And he gets back to his heartfelt-country roots in “The Day You Stop Lookin’ Back.”
Style-hopping aside, Rhett says he’ll never abandon the Nashville aesthetic completely.
“I fell in love with country music at a young age and it's always been my first love,” he tells us by phone while driving around Music City. “I think the story and the emotion behind a country song is what I will always do.
“Will my production be kind of weird and different, and sound kind of crazy? Probably so, but I think my voice and my emotion and my storytelling will always remain the same.”
Here’s more from Rhett on his music and what he’s bringing to the Aldean tour:
What’s the situation when you go out on one of these big tours? Do you share a bus with the band, or …?
Every year we add production and add players. And you’ve got to add more crew members, which means you've got to add more buses. This is the first year we have two semis on the road and three tour buses. The band has their own, the crew has their own, and then I ride with my assistant, my camera guy, and my trainer and my tour manager. This is kind of the biggest that it's ever been for us, so I'm really not used to it yet, to tell you the truth.
What’s the trainer have you doing? Burpees in a parking lot?
I've had the same trainer for a couple of years. He basically bought this gym that you can set up anywhere. It fits in this metal box that we put in the trailer, so it's got a pull-up bar, you can hang TRX straps from it, it's got a dip bar, a bench press, and a bench, and all kind of stuff. So, we really never have to leave the facility, if we don't want to.
And with the added semis it does sound like Aldean is letting you do more with production. You are probably an expert at the shorter lead-in set at this point. What’s your approach to it on this tour?
We have become so used to 45 minutes, it's unbelievable. When we do actually get a chance to headline, I'm a little bit nervous about having to play 90 minutes and trying to figure out what I'm going to put in there. For the amount of hits that we have, compared to the amount of time we have, it's great because you just give the fans hit after hit after hit. It's nice, because you leave them wanting a little bit more. I think that should always be your plan as an artist.
Do you try to keep it high-energy the entire time, since you are catching some people walking in?
For sure. We try to keep pretty much the whole show uptempo, except for in the middle I'll break it down and do a couple acoustic songs, and then we'll sing "Die a Happy Man." That's about as low as it gets. I love playing ballads. I love just sitting up there with an acoustic guitar playing in an arena, but at the same time, those people came to drink beer and have a good time.
Your sophomore album, Tangled Up, is a very different chapter from your debut — you’re not sticking to any musical category or genre, but rather doing what you want. How did the new sounds come about in the studio?
I'm always trying to take what I love from other artists and turn it into something of my own. Tangled Up was definitely a different chapter because I had done many more shows since my first record. I was listening to different music. I was writing with a bunch of different people. It's all over the map, whether it's a Zeppelin riff, or a Sam Cooke kind of feeling, or even a Bee Gees kind of feeling. I'm a huge fan of throwback music and R&B, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But somehow when the records are done, they seem cohesive in a strange way.
At the same time you grew up around a lot of country greats, thanks to your dad’s good name in the industry …
Nineties country gold will always have a special spot in my heart. Tracy Lawrence, Joe Diffie, Garth, Tim McGraw and Chesney and all the people that I grew up, and my dad was friends with, so I felt like I knew every country song on the radio. Other than that, just driving to school in the morning, my mom would really only let us listen to the country station or the conservative pop station in Nashville. When it was with dad, it was like, it was the Beatles, and then it was just Paul McCartney's solo project, and then it was like every Led Zeppelin album. Later it was DMX, or Tupac, or Public Enemy; which a 9-year-old probably should not be listening to, but I give my dad full credit for diversifying my musical knowledge and influence.
You just did an episode of CMT’s Crossroads with Dallas-born pop star Nick Jonas (airing later this summer). What surprised you about that experience, if anything?
I think the biggest thing that musicians across the board have in common, whether you're pop, hip-hop, country, soul, or whatever, is that everyone has a love for great songs. I think that's why me and Nick vibed so well. His dad was an aspiring country artist, so they grew up listening to country music. I think when you listen to Nick sing songs, his melodic structures are a little bit the same as mine, and he just has a love for great songs and melodies. I think it’s what connected us on stage. It was just a really good time.
Back to your Dallas show this weekend, what can fans expect, without you spoiling too much?
It's the biggest production we've ever put together. The same guy who builds all of Justin Timberlake's sets built my set this year, which is a little bit different from what I've experienced in the past. I don't know man, if you've seen a Jason Aldean show, and you're wondering what the middle slot is going to be like, you can just expect I'm going to ask you to dance, I'm going to ask you to sing and it's a really, really high energy show. If you want to get there and get pretty pumped up for Aldean's show, then I would like you to be there.