Thomas Rhett Interview: Country Newcomer Finds Inspiration in Dad, Hip-Hop and Eric Church
Fate is a funny thing. Just ask Thomas Rhett. Growing up around the music business and witnessing how fickle and volatile it can be, by way of his dad Rhett Akins' career in the mid-'90s, Thomas had pretty much decided a career as a singer was not really for him. In fact, he had all but promised his mom he wouldn't get into the business. But fate obviously had other plans. If you grow up attending Reba McEntire's Halloween parties and riding tour buses across the country on weekends, one can easily become enamored with the whole celebrity lifestyle, and Thomas will admit, it definitely had its perks.
"A lot of people ask me have you always wanted to do this, and the answer is no," Thomas tells The Boot. "Growing up, I got to see a lot of things that I probably shouldn't have seen being on the road with my father, just even R-rated movies for example. I grew up a little bit on the road. I went out of town a lot with my Dad on the weekends. If he left out on a Friday, I'd miss school and go out and see some of the shows. He would always pull me out there on stage. The first time I remember performing in front of a crowd, I think it was in Florida, I went out there in a Green Bay toboggan and baggy pants and sang Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy With It." That's just how it was around our house. Like going to Reba's party -- Dad was on tour with Reba and that's just what we did. I loved going on the road ... I think that's something everybody ought to experience one day, not necessarily as an artist, but just to get out and see the country. I remember going with Dad up to Minnesota to a Vikings game when he sang the Anthem or going to out to California or Wyoming and we'd stay an extra week and ski, that was really the perks of being part of that world."
Unfortunately, all that traveling and other challenging parts of the business can take a toll on an artist's personal life, and Thomas soon witnessed the unraveling of his parents' marriage as a result, which left him a little bitter for a time.
"I don't want to get too detailed and personal, but my parents got divorced when I was about nine. A lot of that had to do with my dad being on the road and that disconnect. Mom kind of always made me promise that I would never get in the music business. I think at one point I actually did promise her that when I was younger. But she's a huge supporter of me, and she knows that I have my head on straight now and my faith drives me. I'm a very spiritual human being in my own sort of way."
Growing up around the business definitely exposed Thomas and his sister to a wide variety of music from an early age. Thanks to his dad, he grew up with a healthy dose of country influences, as artists such as Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride could always be heard around the Akins household. But the born-in-the-suburbs, upper-middle-class kid instantly and particularly took a shine to hip-hop.
"Dad told me that before I was born he would put my mom's stomach up to the speaker and play Led Zeppelin," says Thomas. "I guess it was kind of ingrained in me from a young kid. But my dad's love of music rubbed off on me. My list of influences might make a bunch of rednecks kinda mad though, because I do consider myself a diehard redneck, but I do love hip-hop. 'I can't stop the hop,' or whatever that saying was. I remember the first time I heard a rap record, it was my dad playing DMX's first record, 'Ruff Riders Anthem,' which was an explicit record and at six probably wasn't the best thing for me to be hearing. [laughs] And 50 Cent, when that record first came out, and Nelly ... gosh, when I think of Nelly, I think of going to Hendersonville Hurricane football practice. It makes me miserable to think about!"
Football wasn't exactly Thomas' forté growing up and he wasn't quite as good as his dad, who had played at the University of Georgia for a semester before pursuing music. He played anyway, along with baseball and soccer, and actually thought about playing college soccer until an injury sidelined those plans permanently.
"I was not a very good football player," he acknowledges. "My coach hated me -- I don't know why, I guess it's probably because I wasn't very talented. Our football team went to the state championship three years in a row and lost, and I was always the kid standing by the ready heater warming my hands the entire game. [laughs] I was really good at soccer and always wanted to play in college. But I tore my knee up my junior year, tore my ACL in the first game of the season, and that's actually what led me to want to become a physical therapist in college, which totally didn't work out."
Thomas ended up at Lipscomb University in Nashville, where he instead studied business and then communications with the hope of working behind the scenes in the music business in some capacity. But then fate stepped in again. Dabbling with singing a bit for fun, Thomas formed a cover band in school and began playing frat parties and other gigs they could get. The parties, while not exactly lucrative, proved to be a good training ground for the young country up-and-comer.
"Frat parties are either awesome or tragic," says Thomas, with a laugh. "My buddy Tyler goes to MTSU and he had me come play solo acoustic for their party one Saturday night after a football game. I didn't go on until like midnight, and by that time everybody is just trashed. I remember singing "Wagon Wheel" [by Old Crow Medicine Show] because all I sang was covers. I hadn't even written any songs. At one point the entire fraternity got up onstage and took the mic from me and I just stood in the back and played the chorus of "Wagon Wheel" for a consecutive 15 minutes! We just kept singing the chorus. After I got done they said, 'Dude, we don't have any money to pay you.' I was promised money -- and got no gas money, no nothing!"
Not long after, at his dad's urging, Thomas took the stage as the opening act one night at a Nashville showcase, and that one night changed everything for the fledgling singer. He was instantly offered a publishing deal with the exact same publisher who had signed his dad years earlier, EMI Music's Ben Vaughn.
"I signed my pub deal in 2010 -- when my dad's song "Gimme That Girl" was big [for Joe Nichols]. I did not start seriously writing songs until after I signed my pub deal. It was crazy -- they didn't even have any songs to base this deal off of; they saw me play one night! And to this day, it's still kind of a blur of how this all happened, because it still doesn't make any sense. I remember telling dad after I signed my deal, 'I hope I don't let anybody down, because I don't have a clue what I'm doing.' My first co-write ever was my dad and Bobby Pinson. It was like going to school with the masters. It's just amazing these people wrote with me then and it's so cool that we actually have success together now. That's like the coolest part about it."
Not long after he signed his deal, Thomas began landing cuts like "I Ain't Ready to Quit," recorded by Jason Aldean. Soon record labels were circling. He signed with Big Machine/Valory Music Company in 2011 and recently completed his debut CD, which is due out in September. He's thrilled to be working with Eric Church producer Jay Joyce on his first CD, and is thankful for the ground paved by artists who mesh styles and continue to broaden the parameters of modern country.
"Thank goodness for Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford and Eric and those guys paving the way," says Thomas. "That's a very brave, brave move on all of their parts, especially Aldean and Brantley to release "Dirt Road Anthem." To me, it's not weird because that's what I love, but for your traditional country singer five years ago that would have been ridiculed. I really applaud Eric for sticking to what he wants to do, because it didn't work for a little on radio and now all that hard work has really paid off. I'm a huge Eric Church fan, and that's definitely what sparked my interest in wanting to work with Jay. I'm just this huge fan of his writing."
In addition to finding kindred spirits in people like Eric Church, he's drawing vocal comparisons to him, although Thomas doesn't really get that connection.
"I've been playing a lot of shows and it never fails after every show someone says, 'Dude, you sound a lot like Eric Church,'" he notes. "I've been really pondering that because I've been putting our voices together and they really don't sound anything alike, but I definitely appreciate it and take that as a compliment. I think it's just the passion we have about what we're singing that is very identical to each other, and Jay is good at bringing that out. I turn into a kind of crazy person onstage. I don't know where it comes from. I'm a very laid-back human being, but when I get out there, I just get way too pumped up and I don't know what to do with my hands sometimes except to wave them in the air or point at somebody!"
He actually addresses that fact on his debut single, "Something to Do With My Hands," a fun-loving, playful tune that fans seem to be eating up as it rises steadily toward the Top 10. He hopes that the rest of his album will strike as much of a chord with the fans, with its raw edges and rock sensibilities.
"Working with Jay has been really awesome, especially the uniqueness he brought to a lot of these songs, transforming them from just a plain old work tape to a smash of a song," Thomas explains. "If I'm gonna go back old school, the Stones have a huge influence on me, in the way that their records are not perfect. Keith Richards, don't get me wrong, is a fantastic guitar player, but his guitar is out of tune a lot, and that's what makes those early Stones records so good. They were not technically awesome, compared to what the Beatles records were like, and that rubbed off on the way Jay and I produced our record. Because if you listen close and were actually there, you know what mess-ups we kept in the record. I don't know if anyone else can hear 'em, but it's cool to have those in there because it makes it real. If you're a singer, you're gonna be pitchy sometimes. If you're a guitar player, you're gonna miss notes sometimes. I think if it's all polished it's not always as interesting. Polished is not bad, but it's just not my vibe."
Thomas Rhett's debut album is due out in September.