Last year, Thomas Rhett threw a bit of a stylistic curveball to fans with his album Country Again: Side A, which moved away from the pop elements and modern production that had been a big part of recent albums like Center Point Road (2019) and Life Changes (2017), and featured a more organic, more relaxed and more country sound.
If not as big of a blockbuster hit as Rhett’s two preceding albums, Country Again: Side A got good reviews and produced two No. 1 singles, “What’s Your Country Song” and “Country Again.” But when Rhett tested songs from the album during an early 2021 run of shows at the famous club Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, Texas, he felt the songs didn’t translate to the live stage the way he hoped.
Rhett rejiggered his live set and set off on a different songwriting path that has now generated his recently released follow-up album, Where We Started. Now, Rhett is sharing these new songs with fans in the Bring the Bar to You tour, which comes to USANA Amphitheatre on Aug. 11 with special guests Parker McCollum and Conner Smith.
“I’m beyond proud of Country Again: Side A. I think I’ll look back when I’m 50 or 60 years old and think that was my favorite record that I ever made,” Rhett said in a June interview. “But I also have to look back at that record and realize that every one of those songs that I wrote, I wrote in solitude. I was literally in my basement writing those songs on Zoom, and I’m dealing with the heaviness and the weight that the rest of the world was dealing with. By the time we got on the road, I started playing a lot of these kind of heavier songs and realized man, maybe there’s just too much heaviness that’s happened to continue to hear heavier, deeper songs.”
As Rhett began writing new material during a tour last summer, he had some instructions for his co-writers.
“I brought songwriters out with me every single weekend on the road and I really just encouraged the writers to watch the show every night and figure out where there were spots in our show that needed some different energy,” Rhett said. After noticing these gaps, Rhett and his collaborators focused on writing music that would invigorate his live performances.
By fall 2021, Rhett had written the songs for Where We Started, and when he went into the studio to record, he had reached a very different place than when he worked on for Country Again: Side A.
“We just wanted to go in there with joy,” he said. “I wanted the recording process this time to not be so weighty and heavy and just have a blast doing it.”
Working with producers Dann Huff and Jesse Frasure, Rhett said the recording went pretty smoothly. He credited the production work of Frasure, who has been one of Rhett’s longtime songwriting partners, with bringing the songs to life in the studio, and together they brought some new elements to his sound on Where We Started. Chief among those are the strings that tastefully enrich several songs, including the easy-grooving “Slow Down Summer,” a recent No. 1 single, the perky “Simple As A Song,” and the title track, a silky ballad that pairs Rhett with pop star Katy Perry on vocals. Noting that string arrangements were common in country music during the 1950s, Rhett liked the dimension the strings brought to the album.
“I’m such a big fan of the ‘50s, and it felt like it was a different kind of a sound than I’ve ever done,” Rhett said. Even with the instrumental and production twists, Where We Started still feels like a country record—although Rhett didn’t forget his fans who like the poppier side of his music.
“I wanted to give the people who fell in love with Life Changes and Center Point Road a few songs that reminded them of that,” Rhett said. “But I also wanted to give a lot of songs to people who really loved Country Again: Side A.” The sound balances country tradition with uptempo crowd-pleasers, and Rhett said that the record still sounds cohesive even if the individual songs are distinct. “As a whole, it’s one of the most well-rounded albums that we’ve gotten to make.”
While the songwriting on Where We Started is more lighthearted than Country Again: Side A, a trio of songs share that previous album’s deeper—and darker—lyrics. The ballads “The Hill” and “Angels” address the challenges that come with marriage and long-term relationships, something Rhett knows about as a father of four young daughters who has been married to his wife, Lauren, since 2012.
“I think people always expect happy-go-lucky love songs from me, but these were two songs that really stuck out to me because I think they went deeper into what a marriage really is,” Rhett said. “After the honeymoon phase is no longer there, marriage really is a choice. My wife and I have chosen to stick with each other and love each other through our disagreements and our arguments, and I think that’s what makes a marriage so strong. I wanted to say I love you in a different way on this album. And those two songs are the ones that did that for me.”
Another song, “Death Row,” was written after Rhett visited a prison in Tennessee housing inmates awaiting execution. Joined on the tune by Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line and Russell Dickerson, Rhett sings of finding humanity in the prisoners despite the crimes for which they were convicted.
“That song literally was birthed out of a real experience,” Rhett said. “I never in a million years thought I would write a song with that sort of darkness in it, but also with that kind of redemption in a way.”
Rhett’s willingness to test musical boundaries without losing his country roots or pop-friendly accessibility has made him one of country’s top stars and most consistent hitmakers. The son of country star and songwriter Rhett Akins, Rhett’s debut album, 2013’s It Goes Like This, was a breakout success. It landed three No. 1 singles on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart, including the album’s title track, which was co-written by his father.
Rhett has only seen his momentum grow over the course of five subsequent albums and his cache of No. 1 singles now numbers 19. Those hits will still be a cornerstone of his live shows this summer.
“This is for sure the longest show we’ve ever played,” Rhett said. He grew the setlist to accommodate his biggest hits, songs from Where We Started and album cuts that Rhett said “are still, for some reason, very popular at our shows.” “I think we have a 25-, 26-song set list this year, which I’m really excited about. There’s going to be something for everybody.” he said.
“Our motto this year is just to bring smiles to peoples’ faces,” Rhett said. “So however we can achieve that, that is our goal.”
- Who: Thomas Rhett with Parker McCollum and Conner Smith
- What: Pop-leaning country
- Where: USANA Amphitheatre
- When: Aug. 11
- Tickets and info: saltlakeamphitheater.com