On YouTube, there are not one, but two videos that show Thomas Rhett enjoying a travel brochure’s worth of activities in Hawaii with his wife, Lauren Akins. They’re smooching underwater. They’re canoodling in a tree. They’re jumping from a plane and high-fiving in the air. The country singer (born Thomas Rhett Akins), 25, seems to have figured out how to get the most out of a video shoot. “Paid vacation!” he says jokingly, seated on a couch in a downtown Nashville office. “The next video is actually going to be shot in Ireland and Australia — I’m kidding.”
Part of the footage, filmed in northern Oahu, was paired with his 2015 hit “Vacation,” but the most intimate clips were reserved for his current smash — the one that’s dominating radio and taking his career to new places. “Die a Happy Man,” from Rhett’s 2015 album Tangled Up, has topped Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart for a whopping six weeks. That makes it the longest-running country radio No. 1 released this decade, beating out hits by Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line; his label Republic plans to push it to top 40. The song, which also has ruled Hot Country Songs, is the fifth and biggest in a string of wildly varied No. 1s for Rhett, priming him as country’s youngest, nimblest superstar-in-the-making.
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KMLE Phoenix program director Tim Richards was one of the song’s earliest supporters, throwing it into rotation despite the fact, he says, that ballads tend to face resistance on largely uptempo country playlists. “This song stood out,” says Richards, citing Rhett’s ability to straddle musical lines. “Some artists can be soulful. Some do pop-country. Some do the straight-ahead country thing. But Rhett’s like a multitool player on a baseball team — he does it all.”
In many recent country hits, enduring love takes a backseat to fleeting “hey girl” flirtation, which makes Rhett’s vow of lifelong commitment unique: “If all I got is your hand in my hand/Baby I could die a happy man,” he sings. Rhett was determined to star in the clip for “Die a Happy Man” opposite his wife, a trained nurse he has known since grade school and married in 2012. Unlike most other stars, he refuses to get cozy with anonymous models or actors in videos. “It took a lot of convincing to get her to do it,” he says — even though she was the one who got him to write the song in the first place.
“We were in the car, and Tim McGraw‘s ‘Just to See You Smile’ came on,” recalls Akins, 26. “I was like, ‘Babe, people don’t write songs like this anymore. It’s so sweet — it just melts your heart. Write a song like that! About something besides whiskey, beer or taking a girl home in a big truck.’ “
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Songwriting runs in Rhett’s blood: He’s the son of Rhett Akins, who had minor country stardom in the late ’90s as a neo-traditional singer-songwriter. Akins gave his son a taste of performing onstage as a pre-tween, inviting him up to rap Will Smith‘s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Years later, Rhett recorded a rap-country-rock anthem called “All American Middle Class White Boy” that celebrated the paradoxes of his upbringing: how he began life in rural Georgia, then moved to a Nashville suburb; how he identifies both with redneck culture and rap artists his dad introduced him to, like DMX. “That’s where me incorporating different styles of music came from,” says Rhett. ” ‘I think Dad would have been the same way if his [record] labels would have let him be the real Rhett Akins — not the Rhett Akins they manufactured.”
Rhett has resisted typecasting. He tried on several musical personas on his 2013 debut, It Goes Like This, experimenting with blue-collar country grit (“Beer With Jesus”) and lighthearted come-ons (“Get Me Some of That”) that blended in with the popular songs of the moment. But then he went left with the slinky, disco-fied smash “Make Me Wanna”; before dancing in a tailored tuxedo in the video, he booked a session with Justin Timberlake‘s choreographers. “They’re like, ‘We want to see what kind of moves you have,’ ” recalls Rhett. “And so I’m there in cowboy boots just moving around awkwardly. It was just way out of my comfort zone, and I realized: The things I do out of my comfort zone make me a better entertainer. I love being the dude that does what no else is doing in the genre. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.”
By the time Rhett released Tangled Up, he had put even more pieces in place to burnish his appeal: a newly developed falsetto (featured in his fourth No. 1, “Crash & Burn”), an upscale show wardrobe highlighted by slick suits sans cowboy boots and a feel-good sound heavily indebted to retro R&B, yacht-rock and hip-hop. “I think that’s where I might differ from most people,” he says. “I’m not just trying to be good at one thing and then call it a day. I want to be like Bruno Mars.”
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As devoted as he is to the art of crowd-pleasing, Rhett realized making his marriage a prominent part of his image could ruin fan fantasies. Even so, he says, “I made the conscious decision when I got married that if I was proud to be with Lauren, why would I keep her a secret so you think I’m single and have more of a reason to buy a T-shirt?” Akins notes with amusement that Rhett’s managers stand guard at meet-and-greets: “If a girl comes in to try and kiss him on the cheek, they swoop in like a hawk. They know that’s not his vibe.”
If anything, all this has made Rhett more likable. Many of his fans have become Akins’ social media followers (nearly 200,000 and counting), keeping up with her medical mission trips to Haiti on Instagram. And how does she think Rhett’s doing at fashioning himself into the complete pop-country package? “I think I’ve saved the world a few times from some pretty awful wardrobe mistakes!” jokes Akins. “But other than that? I think it’s working.”
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of Billboard.