Thomas Rhett challenges country music conventions
Picture Perfect / Rex Features
He may be sitting backstage at Toronto's tiny Dakota Tavern, but Thomas Rhett has stadium-sized dreams.
"I just want masses of people to hear what we have to say, and I want masses of people to dance to my music and sing the words back to me," the young country artist says. "There's nothing really cooler than that."
Recently named one of People Country magazine's "Fresh Faces," Thomas Rhett Akins Jr. is the son of fellow country artist Rhett Akins. The junior Akins started playing drums on a kit bought by his dad as a kid. He then picked up the guitar in high school, which led his dad to teach him a few chords.
While the Georgia native played in a few bands in high school and toured with Dad as a kid, Rhett wasn't determined to follow in his father's footsteps. After all, his parents' marriage unravelled partly due to his father's profession. (They split when he was nine.)
"Mom always kinda was like 'I really wish that you wouldn't go into the music business. Ever,'" he recalls. "And she was like 'Be anything, be a doctor, be an architect. Be whatever you want to do. Just please [don't get into music]'."
So Rhett enrolled at Lipscomb University, a private Christian college in Nashville, to study physical therapy and then communications, with the idea that he might work behind the scenes in the music industry.
While he had written songs in high school, Rhett didn't get serious about the craft until he was approached by EMI Music Publishing's Ben Vaughn after opening a show for country singer Frankie Ballard at Nashville's 2nd Ave Live club. (Vaughn is the same label rep who signed his father years earlier.)
"He said, 'I see something in you. I don't even know if you can write a song, but I'm willing to take a shot.'"
Vaughn signed the fledgling performer to a preliminary publishing deal. The younger Akins started writing with his dad and Music Row vet (and BMI Songwriter of the Year) Bobby Pinson. That led him to a co-write on the song "I Ain't Ready to Quit," which Jason Aldean recorded for his 2011 album My Kinda Party.
"That was seriously the first song that I wrote that I was like 'this is a [well]-written song," Rhett says. "There's no word that I would go back and change; there's no part of the song that bothers me. And that's rare for me. I can always go back and change a word or change a line, but for some reason that one just hit home. And Aldean cut it, and at that point I was like, y'know, this is the path. This is where I'm supposed to be heading."
Rhett sold more songs, with the likes of Joe Nichol and Lee Brice recording them, and Vaughn started shopping him to labels. A three-song showcase for Big Machine Records, home to Taylor Swift, led label head Scott Borchetta to sign Rhett to Big Machine's Valory Label Group. Rhett's debut single, "Something to Do with My Hands," was released earlier this year and went Top 15.
Released September 4, Rhett's Acoustic EP was produced by Jay Joyce. (A full album is tentatively due next March.) Rhett credits the veteran producer, who has worked with country vets like Eric Church and Miranda Lambert but has also produced indie bands like Cage the Elephant and The Whigs, with encouraging him to not be traditional.
"He seemed like about one of the only people that could kind of build me in a direction that I didn't know that I could go in," Rhett says. "And so Jay is highly responsible for helping me come up with my own vibe and sound, and I'm pumped about it. It's definitely a different sounding record, but different's good."
Indeed, Rhett's influences include country, rock and hip hop. He has described driving with his father when he was a child and being exposed to everything from The Beatles to DMX. That diversity is evident on songs like "Front Porch Junkies" which finds Rhett rapping to a laidback country beat. It's a sound, I point out, that you don't hear much in country music.
"It takes people a little bit longer to catch on to different stuff," he admits. "They're used to normal because that's all that they hear is normal. And I'm not saying this record is not normal, but it's definitely different than your average country record."
Rhett, who has shared stages with the likes of Blake Shelton, ZZ Top, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, is currently opening Toby Keith's "Live in Overdrive" tour, which runs through September in the US. (Ironically, his father also toured as Keith's opener, back in the '90s.) Rhett has found the current tour a formative experience.
"I go out and watch Toby's show every night," he says. "Y'know, there are a lot of acts that will just get off stage and just kind of forget about watching the shows, but I learn something new from Toby every night, from his talking points to the way that he works a crowd. And it's different, though, because Toby plays two hours of nothing but hit after hit after hit. And we have one that's not even, y'know... It's a top fifteen song. So, y'know, they know one of our songs! And so it's a challenge for us to try to pound the rest of them into their heads and try to make an impression."