Ask Thomas Rhett about how he learned about music, songwriting or performing and you get variations of the answer — from his dad. That would be his dad and namesake, Thomas Rhett Akins, a veteran country singer and songwriter who’s written hits for Luke Bryan, Brooks and Dunn, LoCash, Lee Brice and a kid who’s real name is Thomas Rhett Akins, Jr.
But the influence of Akens starts far earlier than when father and son started writing songs together.
“If it wasn’t for him, all I would have listened to when I was a kid would have been N ‘ Sync, Justin Timberlake and Garth Brooks,” Rhett said. “He introduced me to The Beatles and southern rock, even Tupac. That’s why my music is so diverse today. I call him a songwriting chameleon. Even though he’s a hardcore country artist, he could write anything. I think that rubbed off on me in quite a few ways.”
The same influence holds true for Rhett’s performance. He’ll bring his multifaceted stage show to Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center on Saturday, Oct. 28, for a headlining show.
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An engaging entertainer, Rhett picked that up around the house as well.
“I keep talking about my dad,” Rhett said. “My dad is the best impersonator, the best storyteller I’ve been around. He’s always been the life of the party guy. Getting to watch him, that kind of rubbed off on me too. Getting up in front of people and performing came really naturally to me.
“Anytime my dad had a camera, I wanted to get in front of it and do something, does that make any sense?” he said. “It was a really cool way to grow up. Getting to be around Reba (McEntire) and Tim McGraw as a little kid might seem weird to some people. But they were his running buddies. You learn stuff from them you didn’t even know you were getting when you were 10 or 11.”
Rhett now gets to show off his performing skills headlining shows in arenas. But it took awhile for him to get there. Dropping out of college to pursue a music career at 20, Rhett wrote songs for the likes of Jason Aldean (“I Ain’t Ready to Quit” and “1984”), Florida Georgia Line (“Round Here”) and Lee Brice (“Parking Lot Party”).
By Sept 2013, the Billboard magazine country airplay chart had five songs in the top 10 written by Rhett and/or Akins, including “It Goes Like This,” the title cut of Rhett’s debut album and his first No. 1 hit. That success put Rhett on the road, playing clubs and jumping on bigger tours as a support. While his songs were on the radio, both by him and other artists, he was plugging away, building his career.
“It’s the slow climb,” Rhett said. “The more artists I talk to, like Dierks (Bentley), Aldean and (Kenny) Chesney, they had moments where they jumped up. But they were doing it year after year after year. There’s something that might be nice about overnight success. But there’s something rewarding about doing it the way we’ve done it.”
For Rhett, the jump came with “Tangled Up,” his 2015 album, and its song “Die a Happy Man,” which spent two months on top of the country charts.
“Before we released ‘Die a Happy Man’ as a single, we were playing pretty consistently to 2,000 to 3,000 people a night,” he said. “My management went — ‘We should try the headlining thing, see how many people would come see Thomas Rhett in an arena?’
“Last fall, we filled the Yum Center in Louisville. How do you go from 2,000 people to 16,000 people in a year? It’s really amazing what a hit song can do for you.”
“Die a Happy Man” changed more than Rhett’s career. He said it made him a better, more honest songwriter.
“After ‘Die a Happy Man,” people want to hear the real stuff,’ he said. “That’s freeing. There’s no more getting into a room trying to write a generic hit. If you can have a hit that really touches people, that’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
The success of “Die a Happy Man” and “Tangled Up” put the pressure on Rhett for its follow-up, as he was constantly touring. So, how did he come up with the songs that became “Life Changes,” the chart-topping album he released last year?
“I wrote this entire record on the road,” Rhett said. “Every single song was written on the bus. When I started having kids, the last thing I wanted to do was to go into town to write and leave them at home. Fortunately, my co-writers will come out with me on a two- three-day run. We’ll wake up at 10, write two songs a day. I can come home from a run and have six, seven songs written and one of them will make the record. Some of my biggest hits have come from writing, coming back to the bus.”
Writing on the bus also gives Rhett a chance to test a song on an unsuspecting audience, something he’s did for the first time while he was opening for Aldean a few years ago.
“We wrote a song and the same night, I played it acoustic in my set,” he said. “When people hear a new song, that’s usually time to go get a beer. But they sat there and listened and really reacted to it. That’s why that song is so special to me. That was the first time that ever happened. ... I love being able to road test the songs.”
Rhett’s songs seem to pass the test whether they get previewed or not in front of concert crowds. “Life Changes” has so far produced four No. 1 Country Airplay singles — “Craving You,” “Unforgettable,” “Marry Me” and the title track. His new single, “Sixteen,” was the most-added single on country radio heading into October.
Rhett’s home life is flourishing as well. He and his wife, and childhood sweetheart, Lauren, now have two little girls, 2-year-old Willa and 1-year-old Ada, so he likes to be home spending time with his family. The good news is he had some breaks in his schedule this summer before heading out on his current headlining tour.
“If this was last year, it would have been tough,” Rhett said of touring. “This year, (I’ve been) doing the Kenny Chesney dates in the summer (opening for that country superstar). But he only plays on Saturday. The whole summer (I’ve been) leaving on Thursday and getting back home on Sunday. (I’ve been) home from Monday through Thursday. That’s been a first in my career.”
If you go
Where: Golden 1 Center
When: Saturday, Oct. 27
More info: https://bit.ly/2yoeu4Z