"I think if songwriting is not based on the most honest truthfulness, then what's the point of saying it?" Thomas Rhett asked, rhetorically, on a recent Zoom call with media.

Bare, specific truth-telling has always been a hallmark of Rhett's career, especially when it comes to opening up about his family and fatherhood in the lyrics of songs like "Life Changes" and "To the Guys That Date My Girls." So when his songwriting sessions over 2020 and 2021 started leading him away from the album he planned to make next — Country Again: Side B, the follow-up to Side A of that project, which came out last April — he went with it.

"I wrote this one song called 'Where We Started' with some good friends of mine named [pop singer] Jon Bellion, Ashley Gorley and Jesse Frasure. We were out at my farm, and this song, for some reason, spurred a lot of other songs that followed suit with it," Rhett explains. "...It kinda started becoming a different project."

That project, Where We Started, will arrive on April 1, striking a middle ground between the roots-focused Country Again discs and Rhett's more up-tempo, pop-informed previous work. Out-of-genre collaborators freshen up the music's perspective — not only in Rhett's Ballion co-write, but also in the title track, which is a duet with a massive pop superstar: Katy Perry.

"That was never a plan. I don't think we were looking for a collaboration on this song," Rhett says, admitting that it came as a big surprise to him that Perry was even interested in the duet. Someone on his team asked if he would mind if they sent over the song to Perry's camp. Why not, he figured.

"I was like, 'Yeah, but they're not gonna respond.'...And literally within 24 hours Katy responded and said, 'I love this. I resonate with this so well,'" the singer goes on to say. "When she put her vocal on it, it took her, like, two weeks. She really put a lot of time and effort into this vocal...This reminded me of how amazing a vocalist she is, and I feel like it really came to life."

Other duets on Where We Started are less surprising, if equally fun: Riley Green, Rhett's frequent co-writer and sometimes-hunting buddy, features on a song called "Half of Me."

"I wish I had more to say about why I picked Riley — but I just love Riley Green," Rhett jokes. "We're friends, and I'm a fan of his, and I really wanted him to be a part of this project."

Megawatt team-ups and reunions with musical pals aside, Where I Started is, in some senses, a bolder album than Rhett's fans may be used. While he's always written true to life, the singer approaches some topics this time around that might've given him pause in years past. On one, "Angels," he stretched his vocal range, hitting a higher note than he ever has before on a record thanks to a couple years working with a vocal coach.

Another collaboration, "Death Row," has a double-take title that's based on a real-life experience Rhett shared with Russell Dickerson and Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard. Those two artists also lent their voices to the song.

"We actually went to the men's prison here in Nashville last Christmas to play some songs for people that were on death row. With this ministry that does this a couple times a year," he explains. "I don't know, our hearts and our brains were just kinda rocked and the next week I went in to write with Ashley Gorley and Zac Crowell and said, 'I've got a really strange title for y'all and it's called 'Death Row.'"

"We literally just explained our experience at the prison in a song. It just felt like, I don't know, something that needed to be said," Rhett adds.

That's darker subject matter than fans might be used to from Rhett, who's historically been best known for writing personal, intimate love songs about his wife, Lauren. But the singer points out that in some ways, Lauren is the inspiration behind this turn, too. Her 2020 memoir, Live in Love: Growing Together Through Life's Changes, was just as revealing about the ups and downs of their family life, in a move that inspired him to be even more open about about the challenges he's faced.

"It was like, 'Well, man, why not talk about these real emotions that I experienced in my marriage, and a lot of people experience in their marriage?'" he reflects, going on to say that those ups and downs will be the subject of another song on Where We Started, called "The Hill."

"I love taking people on these emotional roller coasters, if you will," says Rhett, speaking about the breadth of the project as a whole. "I like to make you cry, but then I immediately like to make you smile. And once you smile, I want you to dance. And once you dance, I want you to cry again."

Country Music's Top 10 Albums of 2021

Billboard released its year-end chart for the top-selling country albums artists of 2021, and Luke Combs, Chris Stapleton and Carrie Underwood are all among the acts who made the list.

Best Country Albums of 2021 - Critic's Picks

This list of the best country albums of 2021 was curated by Taste of Country staff, with help from fans and with consideration of industry acclaim and mainstream accessibility.

The top album of the year is a traditional country record that makes subtle efforts to include more progressive-minded fans. Elsewhere, find projects from a dynamic mix of artists and and visionaries.

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