Thomas Rhett Talks 'Bringing Soul Back' to Country and Following in His Father Rhett Akins' Footsteps

Thomas Rhett performs onstage during the CMT Ultimate Kickoff Party Live From the College Football Playoff Championship on January 9, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. 

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT

Thomas Rhett's "Make Me Wanna" is No. 4 on this week's Hot Country Songs chart -- an impressive accomplishment for any young artist that becomes more impressive when you consider that the song is Rhett's fifth single from his debut album. (Several of the previous singles have been hits as well.) The track stands out on country radio: While many artists are incorporating hip-hop beats and hard rock into their music, "Make Me Wanna" starts with a clean guitar line beamed in straight from '70s soul -- there's even a quick burst of hand-percussion like you might hear on a classic funk track. Billboard caught up with Rhett to talk about his latest hit and his upcoming second album.

"Make Me Wanna" sounds very different from most of country radio right now -- it has a '70s soul feel to it.

It definitely does. I wrote this song pretty early on in my career. It took a lot of convincing to even get it on the record because at that point, I don't think the song would have ever worked on country radio. But thank goodness that the label let me cut it and put it on the album. This is my fifth single off my first record. A lot of times the fifth single can either tank or do really well, and this has always been a song that I've wanted to put out to show that side of my artistry and songwriting ability and a throwback vibe. Never in a million years did I dream that this song would be in the top five and selling on iTunes.

So it was one of the first songs you wrote from the album?

Yeah, I wrote it and recorded it with a guy named Jay Joyce, and then it went through a couple of other producers. The song just sat around -- it wasn't until "Get Me Some Of That" that I was like, I want to put out something different. It's fun to put out a song I wrote two and a half years ago and have it still be current today and be successful.

Do you listen to a lot of soul and R&B?

I've always loved R&B since I was a kid, listening to Otis Redding or early Usher. Today I love that guy Allen Stone and the new Ed Sheeran -- all the guys who are bringing soul back into current music. I'm trying to do the same thing. I think that's why it's working. Every five years, somebody puts out something that's cool and different, and then a lot of people go try and copy that same thing in a slightly different way. So maybe this is a breath of fresh air for people. You can't deny that it makes you feel good -- whether you like the song or not, you can bump it on the beach or in your car and it'll make you feel good.

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How did you end up connecting with Jay Joyce? He's on a real hot streak right now with his production for Eric Church and Little Big Town.

Eric Church is one of the biggest reasons I ever wanted to write songs in the first place. When I got my record deal, he was like my Merle Haggard, if you will. I wanted to use his producer because I love the way his records rocked and how different they were. So I teamed up with Jay and we did a whole album and unfortunately the whole album didn't come out, but half the songs on my first album are produced by Jay. It was a blast to get to work with somebody of that stature. He's just a great guy to work with and an insane producer.

It's funny you mention Church, because his song "Like A Wrecking Ball" is the one country song I can think of right now that also has the vibe of "Make Me Wanna."

It's raw. There's not a whole lot of perfect going on in that song. We used a lot of cool players -- Matt Chamberlain played on that song, he's one of the best drummers in the whole world. I had some of the best musicians in town play on it. That was one of those ones where I found nothing wrong with it when it came back from the mix, which is rare.

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Who are the guys you co-wrote the track with? A lot of your co-writers on the album are big names; these guys are less well-known.

That's the coolest part about it. Bart Butler produces a guy named Jon Pardi, who I love -- super country guy. Butler wrote it. Larry McCoy too -- that was the only time me and him had ever written together, even to this day. We wrote one song together and it was that one. It's going to be awesome, 'cause I think that's going to be Larry's first No. 1 ever. It hasn't gone No. 1 yet, so knock on wood, but if it does it'll be a very very cool No. 1 party. It won't be just the usual songwriters that always get No. 1. 

Was this your favorite of all your singles you put out?

It has always been one of my favorite ones to sing live. But one of the biggest reasons I put this out was because the new album is over halfway done, and "Make Me Wanna" is a great bridge to what's to come on the second album. I felt like I needed to put something out that would make me stand out a little bit more so people wouldn't listen to the second album and be like, "What is happening?" We're going more towards to the '50s-'70s throwback country, like modern-day Ronnie Milsap or something like that. Obviously with current stuff on there, but I wanted to chase my funkier side. I think the fact that "Make Me Wanna" works is a great sign.

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Your dad, Rhett Atkins, is a big songwriter in Nashville too. Do you feel like you're in competition with him now?

No. Dad is forever a hitmaker -- that's what he knows, that's what he does. For me, every song I write I usually have to hold for a long time because it might be something I want to put on a record. Every song dad writes he gets to pitch. I always wonder how close we'd be in terms of success if I got to pitch all my songs and he got to pitch all his songs. Maybe one day we'll find out.

Do you know when you're planning to finish the second album?

I would love to be finished by April and have an August release. That's kind of the plan.

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of Billboard.