Thomas Rhett is known for spinning romantic songs including “Die a Happy Man” and polished pop tracks such as “Look What God Gave Her” and “T-Shirt” into irresistible ear candy and multi-Platinum smashes.
But Thomas Rhett recently teamed with Russell Dickerson and Florida Georgia Line‘s Tyler Hubbard to release “Death Row,” a stark story of wrongdoing, grace and redemption. Featured on his sixth studio album Where We Started (out Friday, April 1 via BMLG’s The Valory Music Co. imprint), the song is also a line-by-line description of a trip the three artists took to a Nashville-area prison to perform for a group of about 30 death row inmates.
Thomas Rhett, Hubbard and Dickerson were invited by their friend and Porter’s Call leader Al Andrews, who also does prison ministry. Porter’s Call is a Franklin, Tenn.-based counseling service that offers support and encouragement to touring and recording artists.
“It was around Christmastime about two years ago, and he will take some people bimonthly to the prison to just talk or read scriptures — or in our case, playing some songs for them,” Thomas Rhett recalls to Billboard.
Though Thomas Rhett (who, as to avoid confusion with his father, singer/songwriter Rhett Akins, goes by his first and middle name) says he felt a little anxious about what the experience would be like, they quickly made a connection. “We talked with them about turkey hunting and Tennessee, college football and country music, for about a good 30 minutes,” he says. As the song’s lyrics detail, he also saw men singing worship songs with one foot chained to the ground and others who had not walked on grass in years.
“That just broke my heart,” he adds. “It really opened my eyes. I’ve made mistakes in my life, too, but they made a mistake that is pretty hard to forgive. I knew the song would be controversial, and there are people out there who have lost loved ones to someone who is now serving time on death row. But at the same time, I do think there is room for forgiveness. If I’m teaching my kids to forgive, then how could I judge people? That’s not my job. There’s just things in life that are left up to God, and that’s one of them. I was just trying to portray that in a country song.”
Soon after, when Thomas Rhett was finishing up a co-writing session with Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell that had already yielded the song “Blame It on a Back Road” (which would ultimately be included on Thomas Rhett’s 2021 release Country Again Side A, the first half of a double album), he brought up the experience. The conversation quickly morphed into melding words and melody, creating the same kind of raw, emotional gut-punch reminiscent of classic country songs that cover the same lyrical ground, such as Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.”
“I never thought about putting it on the album,” Thomas Rhett says. “For me, it was just a therapy session, and the only way I knew how to put into words what that day meant. I sent the song to Tyler and Russell mainly for their approval. I wanted to kind of fact-check myself and make sure I was saying what happened that day the way they saw it happen as well.”
But soon, friends and family began encouraging him to record the song, and he reached out to Hubbard and Dickerson again to include their voices on the track.
“It wouldn’t be a song without Tyler and Russell on it. They put their vocals on it and I’m so grateful they are part of it,” Thomas Rhett says.
“Death Row,” along with a few other tracks on Where We Started, were originally meant for Thomas Rhett’s Country Again Side B project. That is, until he played a few shows in Texas in 2021, shows that marked his first performances in over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Country Again Side A was written in such a place of solitude. We were all locked in our houses and Cloroxing our freakin’ groceries, it was just a weird time,” he says. “I got up there thinking songs from Country Again Side A were going to be received well,” he says. “They were, but people just wanted to freakin’ dance and move, drink and party. So I thought, ‘Maybe Side B needs to change.’”
He brought writers out on the road with him and they begin writing songs including “Where We Started,” “Bring The Bar,” and “Anything Cold.” “All of a sudden this record did not feel like Country Again Side B,” he says. “So someone at [Big Machine Label Group] said, ‘Well, who says we have to put out Side B right now?’ So we just did a record in between the two.”
Lyrically, the album blends light-hearted party fare with Thomas Rhett’s signature brand of songs gleaned from his life as a husband to his wife Lauren Akins and father for their four daughters. Sonically, Where We Started leans more cinematic than his previous efforts. “Slow Down Summer,” “Where We Started,” “The Hill” and “Us Someday” all boast string sections.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of the Beatles and George Jones over the past couple of years,” Thomas Rhett says. “One of my favorite Beatles songs ever is ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ and that entire song is a string section. And I was listening to ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ and I don’t think I ever realized that entire song is pedal steel and string section.” He had a revelation: “If George Jones was doing it back in the 1980s, maybe we can do it in 2022.”
Thomas Rhett penned 14 of the tracks on the 15-song album, with the lone exception being the opener “The Hill,” penned by Lori McKenna, Jordan Reynolds and Emily Weisband.
“I wanted to find a new way to say ‘I love you’ to my wife, but also something that would describe the day-to-day things that come with being married and having kids,” Thomas Rhett says. Sometimes a song comes along at the perfect moment, and this one felt tailor-made for him.
“Literally, the night before I got that song, me and Lauren were arguing about that I had not completed the dishes and it was time to go to bed. So I stayed up until like 10:30 that night washing dishes, and the next day Jordan sends me the song. The second verse is all about arguing about stupid crap but then the hook is, ‘At the end of the day your love is the hill I want to die on,’ and I just melted. It hit me like a ton of bricks and felt like I had been in the room writing it with them.”
Another standout, “Mama’s Front Door,” finds a unique way to chronicle his love story with his wife. Thomas Rhett had just finished dropping his two-year-old daughter Lennon off at his mother-in-law Lisa’s home when the idea came to him.
“Lauren grew up in the same house from the time she was born and her parents still live there. There was something about watching Lennon run through the door of Lisa’s house — my kids call her ‘Bunny,’ that’s her grandmother name — and I thought of how often I had been to the house under different circumstances. I’d been there as a friend, a boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend, a fiancé, to dropping a kid off at their grandmother’s house. So I thought, ‘Is there a way to write a song about a door?’ It’s just the story of me evolving from age 16 to 32, and it’s one of my favorites on the album.”
One of the album’s most perhaps unexpected moments comes via the title track, a chart-topping pop star and American Idol judge Katy Perry. “I think people expected the song to be some crazy hype EDM version of something but it’s a beautiful love song that Katy came in and just owned,” he says — noting that Big Machine Label Group’s executive vp, A&R Allison Jones helped make the connection happen.
Thomas Rhett and Perry filmed the video for “Where We Started” a few weeks ago. “It really fits the song, and it’s cinematic,” he says. “We developed three giant sets that all look very cool. It’s a lot of free-flowing curtains around and we don’t really do a lot together in the video until the end. But there is a bit of flashback of both of our lives on these video screens that show where we started and where we ended up. It’s a beautiful video.”
Given that Thomas Rhett recently teamed with Breland for the gospel-leaning track “Praise the Lord,” and was featured on Chris Tomlin’s country-infused worship album in 2020, Thomas Rhett says he would love to expand on his country catalog, with a gospel album at some point.
“I’ve gotten to know Chris [Tomlin] over the past few years, and I’ve become really good friends with a guy named Brandon Lake and the whole Maverick City [Music] team,” he says. “I feel like it would be fun someday, even if it wasn’t a full record, just to do a whole bunch of collaborative projects with those guys. They are taking Christian music in a direction that is awesome and feels real and produced to a point that is cinematic. I’ve listened to it for a long time and I feel like there is something really cool and organic happening in that world that I want to be a part of.”