Interview: Thomas Rhett Explains How a Song Older Than His Mama Ended Up on ‘Where We Started’
Musically, Thomas Rhett is an old soul. In fact, if he were any older of a soul he'd be covering Stephen Foster on his new and decidedly progressive country album, Where We Started.
A twist on a 68-year-old pop standard will have to scratch that itch for now.
If any one album from 2022 could showcase the full range of a modern country singer's talents and influences, it'd be Where We Started. The 15-song collection is a remarkably peppy reminder that Rhett could go pop if he wanted to (but does he?), but no amount of razzle-dazzle will distract from his simple country storytelling.
While personal — Thomas Rhett albums are always very personal — the album is more accessible than much of the music he's been praised for across the last decade. He very well may be singing about wife Lauren and their girls, but songs like "The Hill" and "Angels" are easy to apply to any unique situation. "Mama's Front Door" is a song any married man can relate to.
Katy Perry is one of four featured collaborators, and their song ("Where We Started") stretches the definition of country as far as possible. So, too, does "Simple as a Song," a Sam Hunt-inspired beat that would be a welcome, refreshing addition to radio and streaming playlists this year. It's also the track that borrows from the past. Yes, that is Doris Day singing across track No. 12.
Rhett talked to Taste of Country Nights' Evan Paul from a home studio in Nashville. "Slow Down Summer" is his current Top 20 radio hit. Where We Started hit stores and digital retailers and streaming providers on April 1.
Taste of Country: With the exception of “Death Row," Where We Started is a really upbeat, summer-friendly album. Carrie Underwood just said that her new album is similar. It's a "sing into your hairbrush" type album. Is this because of the pandemic and politics and being locked down for so long that you wanted to come out with a happier, summer album?
Thomas Rhett: Yeah, kind of. I think Country Again: Side A was so heavy because I think the world was just heavy and that’s just what was happening in my life. I think getting back on the road just changed my perspective so much. I really just forgot what it felt like to play a show. It had been a year and a half, and I got back out there and I played a bunch of songs that I had written during quarantine. I think people enjoyed it, but I think they were just like, "We’re ready for something up, when you’re ready." You know what I’m saying?
I kind of got back into the writing room and was like "Man, people do not want to be sad anymore." So yeah, there are some songs on here that I think really strike my singer-songwriter heart, because that’s where I write from naturally. But to be able to write some songs that I felt could really do well in the summertime and on a big stage, that played a huge part in this album even coming to life in the first place. I’m with Carrie. I think people are choosing their moments to be sad now, but I think they're choosing happiness for the most part.
Is it safe to say this is your most progressive album since Tangled Up (2015)?
Yeah, I guess so. But at the same time, I feel like a lot of it is just very on-brand for me. I think I’ve always been a diverse artist and one that’s not really afraid to push boundaries, at least from a production standpoint. Lyrically, it’s all, you know, TR experiences, just with some different stuff happening in the background.
What’s interesting is you have the ability to make songs that are country but can also cross into pop. Do you feel pressure to cross over and have you ever actively tried to do it?
I think that’s where it comes from initially. I’ve got four kids that, all they want to listen to is the Encanto soundtrack. They want to hear Jonas Brothers in the car and they want to hear all these different sounds. So, a lot of the time I’m writing to be like, "Man, maybe this will make my kids happy today." And then all of a sudden it makes my mom happy and my grandparents happy and my friends happy. The next thing you know, if all those people are happy, why couldn’t all the other people in the world listen to it and feel the same way my kids do when I play it for them in the car?
I don’t really ever feel any pressure to do anything, to be honest with you. I think it’s just whatever vibe hit me that day or what I’ve been listening to on my own, personal time, I try to incorporate it while maintaining that story side of myself. I’ve never tried to do it (cross over) full on, like you’re saying. I don’t really have a desire to, either.
On "Simple as a Song," you sample a 68-year-old Doris Day song. How did that happen?
When my wife and I cook together, we pour a glass of wine and listen to ‘50s music. I’ve always been a huge fan of that. My grandparents really instilled a lot of Elvis and a lot of Sinatra and a lot of the Drifters ... and the first song that played on this playlist was this song, called “If I Give My Heart to You” by Doris Day.
I was writing with a guy named Luke Laird and said, "Can you mash this together and make it feel current?" That’s what we wrote over that song. I’m a huge fan of that song because I think it sounds so different than anything else I’ve ever recorded. I don’t know. It makes me happy. Dude, I love that song.
People will compare that to "Hard to Forget," by Sam Hunt. How do songs like his song open the door for you, creatively?
I think Sam was one of the first people to mess with the mashing of super old songs and trying to write something new over it. I think it’s kind of fun to hear something familiar melodically and write an entire new story over it. It’s challenging as an artist to be like, well they said it pretty dang perfect, but what would I say if there was a part two to this song? I think Sam was one of the first people to do that, and I think it was received really well by a lot of people. I just thought it’d be fun to try it as well.
You and Lauren will celebrate 10 years of marriage in October. I think you were 22 years old when you married, and people said you were too young. Do you understand those concerns more now, being a bit older?
Yeah, kinda. But I also believe in “if you know, you know.” I mean, I get it. There was a lot of people who were like, ‘Hey man, you’re just starting a career. Why would you do this now?’ But there was just no doubt in my mind. I was kind of determined to be like, if being married makes me not be a successful country singer, I was never supposed to be a country singer in the first place. That was my priority and something I knew would never fail.
If you texted Lauren and said, "Am I stubborn?" What would she say?
She would say, "You’re not more stubborn than me." (Laughs).
Who gets more upset when you don’t win an award?
Me. My wife — I’m not saying she doesn’t care — she’s like, "Honey, whatever, you lost. We’ll try again next year." And I’m sitting there going, "No, we lost. You don’t understand. We lost!" But she’s always such a great encourager in my career.
Rumor has it you guys are going to be going for a fifth baby. Can you confirm or deny this?
I would deny that for now, for sure. We’re gonna wait a minute. We’re gonna come up for some air before we get going again.