Country Jukebox Jury LP: Thomas Rhett – Where We Started

Country radio is in its dying gasps, like Voldemort at the end of the seventh Harry Potter film. With streaming taking the audience share, radio will never have the hegemony it had in 1990, 2000 or even 2010.

As with Maren Morris (whose new album Humble Quest was released in March 2022), Thomas Rhett has become immersed in Nashville’s music scene. A decade later both are automatic picks for country radio rotation. Maren’s third album and TR’s sixth (six!!) both push them into the next stage of their successful career. Both are parents – TR a father of four, Maren of a two-year-old son – who have enough hits to headline shows in the USA and the UK, thanks to radio play over here.

Their sound is on the poppy commercial end of country music, the type that makes money. TR is the cash cow of Big Machine, the label which grew rich on Taylor Swift, and has written with guys who helped carve the sound of One Direction. He will always be known as the son of Rhett Akins, the man who has become a top commercial songwriter with hits like Boys Round Here, Small Town Boy and lots of tracks about girls sung by Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and TR himself. Grandpa Rhett used to go out on tour to open for his son and also babysit the grandkids while TR is dancing onstage as country’s answer to Ed Sheeran or Harry Styles (or Bruno Mars, but that’s a stretch).

For his part, TR wrote Round Here for Florida Georgia Line and was launched to market with a track where he wanted to have Beer with Jesus. After a decade of hits which include Die A Happy Man (a Billboard Hot 100 number 21 smash) and the Maren Morris duet Craving You (number 39), he has also hit the US album number one spot twice. This is testament to Scott Borchetta’s ability to market a good product but also to how TR presents himself as an American country-pop star. He’s hosted TV shows and done absolutely nothing of note apart from become a father of three kids with his wife Lauren and adopt a baby girl from Uganda.

His last album Country Again Side A was a perfectly acceptable commercial country record whose two singles were What’s Your Country Song and Country Again. This is because you make more money showing off your rural credentials these days than pretending you’re a popstar in LA. Even Lizzo is a part-time popstar these days, and she’s one of the best. In any case, put TR next to Nick Jonas, as happened on CMT Crossroads, and we know who the superstar is.

The marketing department at Big Machine who put together TR’s career will get a big return on their investment. Don’t forget that TR is a product of Music Row so has to convince his audience to show up and party with him in some large venues. After playing Stagecoach at the end of April, TR goes out on a headline tour this summer called Bring The Bar To You – with Parker McCollum in support! – so there’ll be plenty of party starters new and old.

He feels both ‘like a Buffett song’ and like a ukulele on Paradise, and there’s some uke in the production of Simple As A Song from the man that brought us Hard To Forget, Luke Laird. Despite yet another ‘Johnny and June walk the line’ reference (kill it), I like the frothy, summery song which will help sunny days go by this summer. It’s background music, but with finesse and charm.

The tour is named after a poppy, produced beach jam on the album which sounds like what Kenny Chesney would be doing if he were born in 1990 as opposed to trying to get his first record deal then. Ditto Anything Cold, which will see fans raise up their beers; it rhymes ‘Aquafina/ Margarita’ and has a funky solo in the middle. Labelmate Riley Green appears on Half Of Me, a song where Grandpa Rhett Akins was in the room. It’s basically a rewrite of Beer Can’t Fix, a far better duet with Jon Pardi which could provide a readymade medley in TR’s set. Maybe Big Machine think his fans are too stupid to notice, or just like hearing the same thing again.

They may sway and ‘talk to God’ on Luke Combs homage Angels, where TR hits a mellifluous falsetto note in the chorus to emphasise the brilliance of the lady in his life as opposed to the schlub he is. Julian Bunetta, his mate from LA, co-writes it, while fellow LA pop writer Jon Bellion had a hand in the horrendously bland Katy Perry duet which gives the album its title. The idea was likely dreamed up in a marketing meeting by someone who had heard the Keith Urban and Pink duet on the way into the office. How sad must Katy Perry be that she’s saved until track 15 rather than placed in the first half of the album?

‘Man it feels good to be country again’ sang TR on his 2021 album, although Where We Started is a pop album produced in Nashville. He even half-raps Somebody Like Me, showing a pretty flow. There are naturally plenty of perfectly country songtitles for pleasantly melodic songs about rural life that unite performer and listener: Church Boots was written with Ernest, who is so hot right now; Bass Pro Hat has him boast that he’s ‘luckier than Lucky Number Seven’; and Mama’s Front Door is a good concept for a song, given that it has hosted father’s blessings, flowers and ‘three crazy kids’ brought round to see grandma. Ain’t it funny how life changes, he might well wonder, and he does on the song’s coda.

As with Remember You Young, Marry Me and Beer With Jesus, TR always throws in a thinky-think song amid the tempo tunes. Tyler Hubbard and Russell Dickerson appear on Death Row, which is like when Ed Sheeran starts singing about drugs and stuff: ‘Jesus is the ticket and narrow is the road…Then it hit me: we’re all human’. Us Someday, co-written with Ed Sheeran’s friend Amy Wadge, begins with a wedding, continues with ‘handprints in a new driveway’ and concludes with TR and his beloved sat in rocking chairs. Will people gravitate to the thinkers or to the beach jams? The streaming numbers will reveal all.

Ashley Gorley was in the room for seven of the album’s songs and he’s a perfect foil for the omnivorous TR. Oddly these days for him, he picks an outside write called The Hill, co-written by Lori McKenna, to open the album. It’s about how fighting for love is ‘the hill to die on’ and will do well with the 25-44-year-old suburban demographic. The production by Dann Huff, among others, is very (adult) contemporary, especially on the album’s radio single Slow Down Summer, which is full of nouns (shades, Roman candles, sunburns) and is a fine contemporary country song with a video, notably, with Asian lead actors.

Thomas Rhett makes money for Big Machine, which is now owned by a Korean company. I would love to see BTS in church boots, which is the natural end point for projects like this. TR’s a lovely guy with a gorgeous family, but nobody will listen to any of these songs in 2030 just as most of his second and third albums have been forgotten in 2022. The kids will all go to nice colleges, though.

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