The rising star of the country scene talks to Acoustic about joining C.F. Martin & Co.’s prestigious ambassador program, being a songwriter in Nashville, and following in his father’s – Rhett Akins – footsteps.
When singer-songwriter-guitarist Thomas Rhett takes the stage with his band — Travis Vance on bass, Eric Borash on lead guitar, Chris Kimmerer on drums, and Josh Reedy on keyboards/guitar — they don’t always know what to expect. ‘Every band hates when their lead singer can’t stick to a set list, and that’s me,’ Rhett says. ‘We’ll put a set list out there, but I can’t ever follow it, so these guys have learned me well enough to know when I’m going to skip a song, when I’m going to go into something we haven’t played in six months, and when I’m going to go into something new that they don’t even know. We obviously have our show put together, but you never know what’s going to happen. It all depends on the crowd. If they are a little bit more tame and not as rowdy, we stick to what we know, stick to the set list, and do our normal stuff. But if the crowd is outrageous, it puts me into a different world and makes me want to do random covers, or get on the drums and play a song, or get on the piano and play a song, and just do stuff that’s technically out of my comfort zone, but I feel very natural doing it because a crowd can give you the energy to do different stuff. My guys are the best improvising band. I just love them to death. They’re great players and great people.’
Thomas Rhett grew up in south Georgia and watched his father, singer-songwriter Rhett Akins, climb the ladder of country music success with a series of hits in the mid-1990s, including ‘That Ain’t My Truck’ and a number one with ‘Don’t Get Me Started’. Traveling with his father at times, Thomas Rhett got a taste of the music industry, life on tour, and even the stage, as he sometimes played drums during encores.
He didn’t plan on a music career. His life in Nashville, where Rhett Akins moved on to become a successful songwriter, was centered around college, playing only in a cover band until his father convinced him to perform at a music industry showcase, which led to a publishing deal with EMI and co-writing with some of Nashville’s top songwriters, including his father. Jason Aldean cut Thomas Rhett’s ‘I Ain’t Ready To Quit’ and released it in November 2010, eight months after Thomas Rhett signed his publishing deal. He played some acoustic auditions for record companies and was signed to Big Machine/Valory Music Company in 2011.
Since the release of his debut album, It Goes Like This, Thomas Rhett has charted five singles, including the platinum-certified ‘It Goes Like This’ and ‘Get Me Some Of That’, both of which reached number one on the U.S. country charts, the latter co-written with his father, Rhett Akins, ‘Something To Do With My Hands’, ‘Beer With Jesus’, and his latest ‘Make Me Wanna’. He was a CMA nominee for New Artist of the Year, for the American Country Countdown Awards Breakthrough Artist of the Year, is currently recording his second album with producer Chris DeStefano, and will support Florida Georgia Line for U.S. dates on their Anything Goes tour 2015. All of this follows a successful songwriting career, writing hits for artists such as Jason Aldean, Lee Brice, and Florida Georgia Line.
Highlighting his many accomplishments this year, he was also invited into Martin Guitar’s Ambassador Program. Thomas alternates between his D-28, HD-16R Adirondack, and Custom Shop Koa HD-16R, and recently discovered the 00 dreadnought Martin, which will also be his custom model.
‘Playing a Martin is one of the best things I’ve ever done,’ he says. ‘I’ve been playing a couple of the Adirondack HD-16s and recently switched to one of the 00 dreadnoughts. It’s smaller, but it definitely punches out of the PA and it changed my ear mix for the better. It’s very full and very crisp, doesn’t distort when I bang on the strings, and still has the fullness I like when I’m picking them. Martins have become my favorite acoustic guitars.’
‘One day we were playing a show with my buddy Dierks Bentley, and he’s been a Martin guy forever. Of all the Martins he has, and he designed his own Martin, he always plays the D-28 with the hole in it that his dad gave him. He’s had since he was a kid. I held that guitar and played it and I thought, This is exactly what I’ve been missing. I got Dierks to call the Martin people and set up a conversation for me. That’s when I bought my first Martin. I bought an HD-16 Adirondack and that was my main guitar that I was playing on the road. Then I bought another exact same HD-16, but made out of Koa wood. I went on my first tour of the Martin factory in Pennsylvania [in September 2014]. I went through their museum, playing guitars that were from pre-Civil War, playing Kurt Cobain’s guitar, Hank Williams’ old D-45, it was just amazing. Fred Greene – C.F. Martin & Co.’s chief product officer – who is in charge of the custom shop, asked me which style I wanted to play. I played a bunch of them and decided on a 00. I tried a 000 because Ed Sheeran plays one, but the body was a little bit too small, and Ed is a way better guitar player than me! I hit my strings really hard, and there is something about the 00. The neck and body felt great, and the sound it projected was so big and bold that that was what I had to have. I got them to give me a loaner 00 while my custom is being worked on. I have it on the road and I have completely fallen in love with it.’
Staying true to the Martin classic look, his custom guitar will offer the traditional 42 Snowflake design with simple inlays and a few individual touches. ‘When we’re on the road, our saying is that we “play for the Home Team” so they’re putting “Home Team” at the bottom of the neck, where it meets the wood,’ he says. ‘A couple of personal things are on the inside of the guitar. One is a saying that my wife and I say to each other, and the other is the state of Tennessee on the back of the headstock. They’re small, subtle things. I also got to pick out my own piece of Madagascar rosewood, which was a very cool process, seeing all the different pieces of wood, and both pieces before they were attached to the guitar that I’m going to play for the rest of my life.’
He keeps things simple onstage, running direct to the PA with his Martin. He uses a wireless Sennheiser and a custom “Ebo amp” built by guitarist Eric Borash. ‘He’s that guy on the road who can do anything,’ he says. ‘He’s the handyman, and he’s a big amp collector, so over the years he’s built his own heads and cabinets. Me being from Georgia, he carved the state of Georgia on the front head of my amp. I’m a simple guy when it comes to heads. I literally like a volume knob and a tone, pretty much, so the only thing that’s on my head is a volume tone and a bass. Honestly, we just run everything pretty wide open, and that’s what I’ve been playing for the last couple of years. I love it because it’s loud and it’s country and it’s simple. That’s about all I need from an amplifier.’
He uses Sensaphonics in-ears, medium Tortex picks, and bronze-coated, medium Martin strings, which have solved his problem with breakage. ‘If I do break a string now, it’s once every six months, whereas when I used other strings I would break the G string every night — first song in, I would pop that string,’ he says. ‘Ever since I started playing Martin strings, I hit them as hard as I can sometimes, and it’s not because I’m trying to hit them hard because that’s what I think sounds good. It’s just that I get so into what we’re doing that for some reason I turn my pack up to eight or nine sometimes and still hit my strings really hard, which means I’m probably going to be somewhat deaf someday.’
Primarily an acoustic player, Thomas Rhett also plays electric, but considers himself more of a rhythm player. ‘I can play licks, I can play scales, but I’m not a lead player,’ he says. ‘For the past couple of years I’ve been playing a couple of different Les Pauls and a couple of different Telecasters, so that’s my jam on the road, just playing stuff wide open. I love that thick, in your face, Marshall sound with a Les Paul and I love the Telecaster run through a Vox AC30. Those are my two extremes with the electric.’
It Goes Like This introduced Thomas Rhett as a diverse singer and songwriter, capable of upbeat songs and country-rap one minute and soul-searching ballads the next. His singles were a perfect fit for today’s country radio climate, but they don’t define him as an artist, which is why he won’t repeat himself on his upcoming project. ‘Having songs like ‘Beer With Jesus’ on that album told people that I’m deeper than ‘Front Porch Junkies’ or ‘Get Me Some Of That, or ‘It Goes Like This,’’ he says. ‘I think the trend right now is just to put out whatever feels good, and whatever the coolest party anthem song is, and I think every country record has to have a little bit of that. But the songs that we’ve already cut on the new album are different for me, as far as content and not being super-loud. They’re very broken-down songs. I would honestly love, if I put out five albums, that you wouldn’t see a big cohesiveness between all of them, because I try to do something different on every album. I like to go out and do new things.’
Having charted five singles on the country charts, Thomas Rhett has established his audience and continues to grow his fan base. What he did not expect, however, was the controversy that grew around the album’s most poignant track, ‘Beer With Jesus’. The song made it into the top 20, but based solely on its title, it polarised audiences, as some found it offensive and others embraced its message.
‘I was 20 years old and in my last little bit of time in college,’ he explains as to how the song came about. ‘When you’re in college, you figure out your own way of life, and you figure out what you do and don’t believe in. You’re thinking about what your parents taught you while you were in high school, and was that stuff correct, and how do you feel about it. It was a very questioning time in my life.’
‘I went in to write a song that day with Rick Huckaby and Lance Miller, and we got to talking about how cool it would be to just, obviously we would get to pray, but how cool it would be to see Jesus face-to-face, physically, in person, and if you could say anything at all, what would you ask? If you had one question to ask Jesus, what would you ask him? I remember Lance saying, “What if you could just sit down at a bar or a restaurant and have a beer with Jesus?” We were talking about how when I get home from the road, if I haven’t seen my buddies for a while, they’re like, “Hey man, let’s go grab a beer.” It’s not like, “Let’s go get hammered.” I think that’s where a lot of people misread ‘Beer With Jesus’ because they thought it was about getting drunk with Jesus. I don’t know. I think a lot of people just decided not to listen to the song. They looked at the title and said, “No, thanks.”’
‘It took us three different times getting back in the room to finish the song. We compiled a list of questions that we thought we would ask Jesus, and put them all into one song. To this day, that song, even though it didn’t do well on radio or on the charts, is still one of the biggest songs we play in our live show, I think because everybody who loves that song has a story about why they love it. Whether it was loss, or whether it’s that same question about what you would talk to Jesus about, or just enjoying the thought of what it would be like to sit down with him and ask him a couple of questions, everybody has their own story. It’s one of those songs that still kind of floors people, and it’s a song that can still silence the room.’
Thomas Rhett’s It Goes Like This is out now.