A couple of years ago, 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 country and more relaxed 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, he felt the songs didn’t translate to the live stage the way he hoped.
This seemingly long-ago event has had an impact on more current events. Rhett ended up rejiggering his live set and found himself setting off on a different songwriting path that has since generated a follow-up album, “Where We Started.”
“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 phone 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 got his summer 2021 tour under way, he had some instructions for his co-writers who met up to write with him over the course of that tour.
“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 and what kinds of songs were missing from our set and we would just kind of dedicate ourselves to writing those songs,” Rhett said.
By fall of 2021, Rhett had 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 wrote for “Country Again: Side A.”
“I think 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 long-time 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 No. 1 single, “Slow Down Summer,” 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 just thought we used a lot of different production elements on this record,” Rhett said. “I’m just such a big fan of the ‘50s, and it just felt like it was a different kind of a sound than I’ve ever done. And I would say that just kind of using different instrumentation on this project was a big change for us.”
Even with the instrumental and production twists, “Where We Started” overall feels like a country record – although Rhett didn’t forget his fans who like the poppier side of his music.
“I kind of wanted to give the people who fell in love with ‘Life Changes’ and ‘Center Point Road’ a few songs that kind of 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.’ There’s a little bit deeper of a piece of that on this record. I feel like as a whole, it’s one of the most well rounded albums that we’ve gotten to make just from a no-song-sounds-the-same standpoint, but they all yet sound cohesive for the record.”
As Rhett referenced, the “Where We Started” album does share one important dimension of “Country Again: Side A,” with a trio of songs that go deeper lyrically than most country music. The ballads “The Hill” and “Angels” deal with meeting 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 kind of just 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.”
The third 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.”
A willingness to test musical boundaries without losing the country thread or accessibility of his music has made Rhett 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,” gave him breakout success. It landed three No. 1 singles on the “Billboard” magazine 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 country airplay singles now numbers 20, and he’s marking the occasion by releasing a collection “20 Number Ones” on vinyl in late September. Those hits figure to still be a cornerstone of his live shows this summer, noting he also tries to include new songs and a few deep cuts that are fan favorites.
“Our motto this year is just to bring smiles to peoples’ faces,” Rhett said. “So however we can achieve that, that is our goal.”
What to know about Rhett’s BJC show
What: “Home Team Tour 2023” with Cole Swindell and Nate Smith
When: Sept. 22; Doors open at 6 p.m., show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Ticket info: Start at $29.50 and are on sale at ticketmaster.com.