“This record is a big ol’ culmination of a decade worth of living,” says Thomas Rhett. “These are the songs I wish I could have written as a 19-year-old, but I didn’t have the knowledge or the life lessons yet.”
The result of a return to his initial inspirations, some new perspectives that came from the challenges of 2020 and life in-between, COUNTRY AGAIN: SIDE A (The Valory Music Co.) is the first half of a two-part release entirely co-written by Thomas Rhett, with the second volume planned for later this year. It’s a musical and thematic return to his roots, an embrace of the sounds, stories and methods that drew the superstar singer-songwriter to country music.
It’s been a whirlwind ride for Thomas Rhett. His four albums have produced 16 Multi-PLATINUM and GOLD-certified No. One singles, nearly 10 BILLION streams, back-to-back GRAMMY nominations and Billboard 200 debuts. He’s reached the pinnacle as a performer—from being named the ACM Entertainer of the Year to appearing on Saturday Night Live—while also maintaining such a strong hand in songwriting that he has received two CMA Triple Play awards for penning three No. 1 songs within a 12-month period, while Old Dominion’s “Some People Do,” which he co-wrote, is nominated for a GRAMMY in the Best Country Song category. But after keeping up with the velocity of a multi-platinum career, Thomas Rhett felt drawn to what inspired him in the first place.
“I found myself saying ‘Let’s play a piano and write a song, let’s get some guitars out and write a song,’ because I had forgotten how to do that,” he says. “I forced myself to write titles down in my phone, to come up with melodies, learn new chords, because I really wanted to get better at the craft of songwriting.”
The song that gave the album both its title and tone started out as a joke. “I walked into a meet-and-greet wearing cowboy boots for the first time since about 2012,” he says. “Everybody on my team looked at me like ‘Where are your sneakers?’ But it felt good to slip them back on—it felt simple and it felt right.”
“Out of that story, we wrote ‘Country Again.’ When the song got finished I said ‘OK, I think we found the theme of what this record’s going to be.’ It’s not about wearing boots or getting in the woods, it’s about a way of life.”
The song felt so pure to Thomas Rhett that he reached back to a more traditional sound and added fiddle and pedal steel to the arrangement. “I started to gravitate toward those instruments I fell in love with in ‘90s country,” he says. “And then, just in that first weekend of me wanting to experiment with getting back to my roots, five or six songs came out.”
Thomas Rhett believes that the distinctive pop, rock, and dance elements that defined his sound on hits like “Make Me Wanna” and “Crash and Burn” comes from a particular aspect of his personality. “I’ve always had a rebellious side,” he says. “It’s why I was in a punk rock band, why I wanted to skateboard—because no one else was doing it. I think that translated into a big reason why I wanted to carve a different path or go in a different direction musically, and I’m grateful for that because I think it separated me from the pack. So many of those songs are a big part of what I do live, but they aren’t as a whole at the heart of what I want to say right now.”
“I thought, what would it feel like to just get back to the songs? What would it feel like to go into an arena and open the show not playing some crazy hype track with fire everywhere, but just a spotlight and a guitar? In the last five years, that’s come back in a big way, with great artists like Chris Stapleton and Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell. I wanted to get back to what country music is in the first place—the emotion and the soul and being able to tell a story in three and a half minutes.”
As his career exploded, of course, Thomas Rhett also got married and had three daughters. Inevitably, the changes in his family life have also impacted the music that he makes.
“When you have kids, it’s kind of impossible not to write about them,” he says. “Your marriage shifts and your life shifts, and your free time is not free time anymore. So when I do have the chance to write, I want to write about something that’s really happening and says something.”
He speaks directly about his daughters on the Country Again track “To The Guys That Date My Girls,” a song which immediately became a show-stopper in concert. “That’s a song to my daughters saying ‘I hope you grow up and date somebody that’s a good kid,’’ he says. “I wrote it on the road, and I played it in concert the same night that we wrote it. And I was watching grown, burly men bawling their eyes out while they were holding their daughters, going ‘Please don’t get older!’ There’s a lot of dads out there that are wondering what that conversation is going to look like.”
Thomas Rhett was already exploring the idea of stripping down his music and writing more directly about his life and his family when the pandemic struck and the world shut down. Suddenly the issues and the questions that were at the top of his mind became very real and unavoidable.
“This lockdown has been a tragedy for so many people, but at the same time, how else do you slow down unless you’re forced to?,” he says. “And then you really have to learn how to deal with yourself. The first fifty days of quarantine might have been some of the weirdest, worst days of my existence—for the first time, I had to look at myself and say ‘Who am I? Who is Thomas Rhett without a microphone or a guitar or a stage?’ I had to really dig deep and figure out, OK, I’m a husband, I’m a dad, I’m a friend and those were things I was neglecting. So in many ways, 2020 was a reality check, a complete reset. And then when I finally settled into myself and my family, and started to work again, it completely influenced all of my songwriting.”
Thomas Rhett points to several of the songs that address his current state of mind, in various ways. “Heaven Right Now” is about a close friend who passed away. “That one still wrecks me,” he says. “I don’t know why I had never thought to write about him, but maybe it’s because only now do I have the space to do so, the time to reflect and put words to the pain inside of me.”
“Growing Up” is a more light-hearted look at what happens as time passes. “It’s about my past self and the things that I used to think were cool,” he says. “When I used to pour a whiskey drink, it was like four fingers, and now it’s just a taste. It’s about becoming a dad—and becoming a wiser version of yourself that you never pictured yourself becoming. But then you get there and you’re like, I have learned something worth sharing.”
The idea to release COUNTRY AGAIN in two parts was a practical reaction to the unprecedented musical output Thomas Rhett was experiencing having written more songs than he can count in the last two years. And as he teased some of them with acoustic versions on Instagram, the response was so strong that he felt like all of those needed to see light of day.
“I’ve never considered releasing double albums before,” he says. “When the world is so busy, if you give me personally more than ten songs, I’ll probably check out by number nine. But we wrote so many songs that we loved, I thought it would be really neat to put everything we wanted out, but give people a break and time to digest both parts. It seemed like my best way to do a double album, just not at the same time.”
As he—like all of us—tries to ponder what the future will look like, when he’ll be able to get back on the road, what it means to put out music in today’s world, Thomas Rhett is also reflecting on his journey, both creative and personal. “Ya Heard,” the closing track on COUNTRY AGAIN: SIDE A, is an offering of gratitude for the surprising and satisfying way things have turned out in his life.
“Sometimes I look back and wonder if God was ever listening,” he says. “Even if I wasn’t on my knees praying about it, I think he was hearing every little thing that I wanted in my life. From my wife to my kids to my music, everything turned out to be exactly what I dreamed of. So I think when you ask for something, you maybe have to be careful what you wish for and how you say it, because it definitely could just come true.”