Exclusive: For Thomas Rhett, Risky Moves Bring Big Rewards
Editor’s Note: Look for an exclusive interview with Thomas Rhett in MusicRow’s 2016 Publisher Issue. In addition to that print piece, the CMA Award-nominated artist spoke with MusicRow about taking an unexpected musical direction, radio’s response to “Vacation” and his determination to release as much music as possible.
Thomas Rhett’s rising star has been a hard-fought battle, professionally and creatively. In 2012, his first single, “Something To Do With My Hands,” peaked at No. 15, while its successor, “Beer With Jesus,” barely cracked the Top 20.
“I was at a point in my career where I thought, ‘If I don’t come up with a hit, maybe this artist career is done,’” Thomas Rhett recalls, “and the Lord is saying, ‘Hey dude, glad you tried it, but I think I just want you to be a songwriter.’”
Those concerns were put to rest when his next single, “It Goes Like This,” became a runaway hit at country radio. The song’s success ushered in an eclectic string of radio singles including “Get Me Some of That,” and the disco-infused “Make Me Wanna.”
Slowly, the Valory Music Co. artist incorporated a wider array of influences into a new batch of songs that would compose his sophomore album, Tangled Up. The new material veered sharply from the traditional fare of his debut album, so much so that Thomas Rhett says he was originally “terrified” by the prospect of releasing the music to fans and to radio.
“I had these fans from my first record that knew me as the ‘Beer With Jesus’ guy, or the ‘It Goes Like This’ guy. I think when people hear the first stuff from you, they get scared and a bit ticked off that you went in a new direction, so I knew putting out Tangled Up would be a risk,” he says.
“I knew it would be a risk if we put ‘Crash and Burn’ out [as Tangled Up’s first single]. I remember my dad said, ‘If “Crash and Burn” works on country radio, then we’re in a for a very strange ride.’ I remember when it went No. 1, I was like, ‘How is this possible?’ I was very grateful, but when you put out something that is different and is not what your core fans are used to, everybody has an opinion and as an artist you have to stick to what you believe in, and know it is good music.”
The risk paid off with the chart-topping (and platinum-selling) success of “Crash and Burn,” as well as the career-changing ballad, “Die a Happy Man,” which Thomas Rhett co-wrote with rising California writers Sean Douglas and Joe Spargur. The single would be certified double-platinum, and spend six weeks atop the country charts.
Thomas Rhett recently renewed his publishing deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing. “He is a positive influencer,” says Troy Tomlinson, President/CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville. “There are those who embrace success inwardly, and then there are those who embrace success and say, ‘How can we use our influence to help others?’ and that is Thomas Rhett. It’s about positively influencing the community around him.”
The genre-bending Tangled Up went platinum, another milestone in the chiseling of a solid career. Though he mentions that his summer single, “Vacation,” stumbled a bit a country radio, Thomas Rhett takes a long-term, evolutionary perspective.
“Obviously, I’ve definitely had better songs that worked on radio,” he says. “I think it might have pushed it a little too far with that song, but I think every now and then artists have to put something out that is groundbreaking and genre-defining because I think whether a song goes No. 1 or not, sometimes those songs become your biggest songs in your live set.”
Though Tangled Up is barely one year old, Thomas Rhett is already prepping for a follow-up, and he says the project will still find him in experimentation mode.
“That has become my niche,” he says. “I don’t think people are shocked when I put something weird out on radio. I think they think, ‘That must be a Thomas Rhett song.’”
On Oct. 28, Thomas Rhett will release the deluxe version of Tangled Up, which includes five new songs, including his current single, “Star of the Show.”
“I love being able to give fans something new as often as possible,” he says. “Kids these days are getting brand new stuff on Apple and Spotify every day. If you don’t give them something new, you almost become boring and irrelevant in a way. So we are trying to put out as much music as we can, as often as we can.”
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