‘Tangled Up’ Is Thomas Rhett’s Big Risk
Bruno Mars is genre-less. He's too funky to be pop, and he's not quite hip-hop. Adult contemporary radio stations will play his music, and country singers call him an influence. Intentionally or not, the singer has shed himself of labels, and the result is a sound and style that everyone wants to turn up loud.
Thomas Rhett calls Bruno Mars an influence. He wants to collaborate with him one day, and he covers "Uptown Funk" during his live show. Recently he's started dancing, at first for fun, but then with a purpose. Rhett's new Tangled Up album is also genre-less.
When I come to him and say, ‘Hey Dad I’m gonna start dancing in my shows, or we’re going to start wearing suits on Saturdays, on stage.’ Obviously in his head he’s like, ‘There’s no way I would have done that in the ‘90s, but if that’s what you want to do, then you go for it.’
Sure, there are a few tracks that are pure country. Rhett says three or four recall the songs on his first album, It Goes Like This, from 2013. But there's no "Beer With Jesus." Instead you find the gritty, soulful sounds of "Crash and Burn," "South Side" and "Anthem."
Genre-less, but not without direction.
Rhett says he had the freedom to record songs that made him feel good, and his record label never raised an eyebrow when he came back with songs like "I Feel Good," his collaboration with LunchMoney Lewis. As a whole Tangled Up is a beach ball for haters of anything but straight-forward, four-on-the-floor traditional country music to take a swing at. You can almost hear them salivating; there's likely to be as many one star reviews as there are five star reviews.
Let's add some more pressure. Rhett's been called a future country superstar by Taste of Country and a few other reputable magazines and websites. He has swagger, a country pedigree and a long list of famous friends to help him navigate newcomer obstacles. With this album he begins to separate himself from the pack. Sept. 25, 2016 is a defining day for this rising star, as that's when the masses — his Home Team and beyond — will learn how committed he is to a very fresh, very untested country song.
“I think funky was probably the main word that described what I was looking for,” Rhett tells Taste of Country. Think "Make Me Wanna" on steroids. Actually, this track from his debut effort was a canary in the coal mine for Rhett and his team. They knew if it was a hit, then several others on the follow-up would be embraced. "T-Shirt" is another. "Crash and Burn" was never meant to be a single, but they decided to send out a second test before jumping in head first.
“I definitely had reserves,” the 25-year-old says. “If 'Crash' did not work and was just miserably terrible, I’ve got another batch of songs that we (were going to) cut.”
There's a couple of reasons not to go hog wild in one particular direction. For starters, it means turning away really good songs, songs Rhett says were immediately snapped up by friends of his and are starting to become hits. It also means turning off those zigging when you're zagging. That's why Rhett left it up to his team to tell him when he went too far. Wife Lauren was especially vital.
“My wife is like the exact age of a lot of my fans," the singer shares. “If she doesn’t think something is cool, I have to like really think it’s cool to still do it.” There's nothing on Tangled Up that didn't get Lauren's blessing. That said, there are three Rhett was nervous to include.
“I think ‘Vacation’ is a pretty huge stretch for this album. I think ‘Tangled Up’ is a pretty big stretch for the record, and I think ‘Feel Good’ pushes it to that complete limit for me," he reveals.
Not mentioned is "South Side," a song about, well ... shaking your south side. Chris Stapleton co-wrote the song, which is hilarious if you've heard his Traveller album. Rhett's been using the song to open shows because he says it relaxes everyone. Men unfold their arms. Girls let loose. The secret to making that song not cheesy?
“I think just being open to being cheesy,” Rhett says. Watch him perform it. He comes dancing on the stage like a white, Georgia-raised, 21st century James Brown. Big dramatic entrances with fire and lasers are a dime a dozen in country music. How many men sashay their way on stage?
Rhett's father, Rhett Akins, is also part of the team that helps him consider songs for albums. Akins was and is a traditionalist, but he's also very supportive of his son.
“I don’t know if there are songs that he hates," the younger singer says, grinning. "I think there are songs that he would rather not be on the album, probably.”
“Dad’s come a long way, and he’s been super supportive," he adds. “When I come to him and say, ‘Hey Dad, I’m gonna start dancing in my shows, or we’re going to start wearing suits on Saturdays, on stage.’ Obviously in his head he’s like, ‘There’s no way I would have done that in the ‘90s, but if that’s what you want to do, then you go for it.’”
The traditionalist will find one or two to snack on. "Die a Happy Man" is timeless and ripe for country radio. It was an obvious choice for a single, and it will root him deep before he unleashes wilder cuts in 2016.
Next year we want to have a show that’s full of moments that you leave going, ‘Yeah the songs were great and I loved all those songs, but can you believe he … (fill in the blank).
"The Day You Stopped Looking Back" is another song that keeps it country. But the focus-tracks are beat-heavy funk-country cuts that will make Rhett's live 2016 live show more fun than a pack of baby elephants in a mud hole. Everything about his live show needs to change, he says. The tone needs to be different, and they need to play funkier. They'll probably hold off on hiring the baddest bass and baritone saxophone players on the planet until 2017, but they're working on a set and strategic setlists to maximize their show. The goal is to separate and expand.
“Next year we want to have a show that’s full of moments that you leave going, ‘Yeah the songs were great and I loved all those songs, but can you believe he … (fill in the blank).’”
In the coming weeks Rhett will reveal which A-lister's party he's joining in 2016. He'll close the year on Florida Georgia Line's Anything Goes Tour before beginning a co-headlining tour with Brett Eldredge this fall.
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