A lot has changed for Thomas Rhett since he opened the main stage at the annual Country to Country festival at the O2 arena in 2016. Back then he was third on the bill behind Dwight Yoakam and Miranda Lambert, whereas this Friday night, 10 March, he’ll headline the opening night of the festival in its tenth anniversary year. Add to that four daughters, three albums, and no less than a staggering 11 number ones (bringing him to a grand career total of 18), and life looks somewhat different for him these days.
“I came here for the first time when I was 26”, he says. “Since then I’ve come back several times to do the club circuit and the theatre circuit. It felt like every year we’d come back and more and more people would show up… I’m kind of blown away by how people are liking country music in the UK.”
With the birth of C2C, 2013 turned out to be as big a year for the UK country music scene as it was for Thomas’ career. He released his first album, It Goes Like This, which produced three of his number ones. Why, I ask him, when most country music is so centered on the specific experiences of life in southern US states, do UK fans enjoy it so much?
“I’ve been trying to figure that out. I’m going to start putting the words ‘Land Rover Defender’ and ‘Guinness’ in our songs and see if that helps translate from ‘Chevy’ to ‘Bud Light’,” he muses. “I think the storytelling aspect of country music is universal. People, no matter where you live, enjoy a good story with a good melody. It just so happens we’re singing about things we grew up doing. If you were to venture 30 or 40 minutes outside London it’s the same: a bunch of hard-working folks, same as where we’re from.”
Despite confessing an aversion to Scotch – “I’m just a Kentucky bourbon guy at the core, I apologise” – it turns out Thomas may have even more in common with the British public than he thinks. One thing that hasn’t changed in the last seven years, of course, is our national obsession with the weather which, on the day we meet in Soho is best described as “bloody awful” (my words, not his).
Thomas, it turns out, is similarly meteorologically observant – and vexed. “It’s better than Nashville, at least it’s consistent here. In Nashville it’s 80 degrees one day in February and then you can have three inches of snow. It’s consistently inconsistent.”
Perhaps it’s the songwriter in him that compels Thomas to speak in terms like “consistently inconsistent”, as it’s an approach he’s taken to his music too. “All my records have been really in-cohesively cohesive… I was terrified to release my entire second record [2015’s Tangled Up] because it was so out-there and different. Very pop, very funk; all these things that had never really been introduced in our genre before. I probably wasn’t the first one but I was the first one to get in there and make some of those songs become hits on the radio.”
‘Hits’ is an understatement. Whilst Thomas describes his terror at putting out songs like ‘Crash and Burn’ and ‘T-Shirt’, the worry presumably evaporated quickly as it was that album, Tangled Up, and its Grammy nominated multi-platinum single ‘Die A Happy Man’ – an ode to his well-documented and cherished love story with his wife, Lauren Akins – that put him on the path to the top-of-the-bill- status he enjoys today.
Whilst, at this point, his association with love songs seems destined to define his career, it’s not been without efforts to even the keel slightly. When I ask him if there’s a deep cut from one of his albums that he’d love to play live he responds, “There was a song two records ago called ‘Blessed’ that I really loved and I always thought should have been a single but I’d oversaturated myself in the love song space”. Still, he’s not quite about to put something out like Merle Haggard’s ‘Misery & Gin’, which he describes as “sad as sad can get… one of my favourite all time country music songs” and the song he always uses to soundcheck.
It’s no surprise Thomas draws on so many influences in his music, having had more of a musical upbringing than most, as the son of ‘90s country star Rhett Akins. Thomas has referred to himself as a songwriter first and, in fact, he and his father both just won Country Music Association Triple Play Awards, given to songwriters who score three or more number one hits in a 12-month period. “I always got to tour with [my dad] on the road and to write songs with him as a young kid. It came naturally to me because I got to watch my dad do it for a living. But I’ve also watched people who came from zero musical background that moved to Nashville and just started doing it.”
Of course, Nashville has always been a songwriters’ town but the line between artist and writer has become increasingly blurred. “There are way more artists now who are also songwriters, compared to when I began” Thomas says. “There wasn’t a bunch of artists who were writing their own songs. The songwriters would write them, they’d pitch them to the artist, the artist would cut them… Everybody moving to town now is also a writer. It’s one of the most major shifts I’ve seen.”
Though having so many established artists writing together may be a reliable hit-making method (remember those 18 number ones), it’s not without its pitfalls when it comes to deciding who gets to cut them. “It’s hard to write with other artists,” says Thomas. “At the end of the day you either just flip a coin, especially if everybody loves it [the song]. It’s happened to me multiple times.
“I’ve written songs with Matt Ramsey from Old Dominion that I really loved and it ended up on their record. I wrote ‘She Had Me At Heads Carolina’ with Cole Swindell… at the end of the day it’s the artist that speaks up the most and says, ‘Hey I love this song and I want it for my record’, it’s just an agreement.”
Although Thomas might prefer to take his time with the next record, “if it were up to me,” he says, “I don’t know I ever would have turned a record in. I feel I would have just continued to write until I felt it was perfect” – which he attributes to a habit of overthinking.
New music will be coming sooner, rather than later, after his headlining set at C2C, which he tells me will include appearances from Lainey Wilson and Niall Horan (with whom he’ll be performing a song that they’ve never rehearsed or sound-checked together). He’ll be going into the studio in April with new music planned for July. What can we expect from a new album?
“On my last couple of records, I loved them but I was playing it a little bit safe. Moving forward and looking to this next project, I’ve got that fearlessness about me again which is scary.”
There’s that fear and those oxymorons – scary fearlessness – but this time Thomas leans into it. “I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re not a little bit scared, you’re probably not doing anything that ground-breaking… I look back on my favourite artists from the past and they would release records that were so wild for that time. Those are the records you remember.”