Thomas Rhett held nothing back on his latest LP Life Changes — as indicated by the set’s weighty title. And while it’s hardly the first time he’s approached personal subject matter — “Die A Happy Man,” the country smash from 2015’s Tangled Up, was penned about his wife Lauren — he admits this is the most no-holds-barred he’s been on a record.
“I was really just trying to have hits, you know? Make a name,” Rhett told Billboard of his previous work at his iHeartRadio Album Release Party. “But looking back, never in a million years would I have thought that people would want to hear my personal stories in a song. But I’ve learned that my fans truly love a story, and they love an honest story — and that’s what I tried to do on this record. Every song that I wrote, if it wasn’t personal, I’ve at least experienced it in some form.”
Rhett sings of just about every stage of his life on his third effort, from being a frustrated 18 year old who just wants to be 21, to being a dad to two kids under the age of 2. With so much personal accounting over the course of one 14-track album, Rhett hopes his latest record takes fans on a journey: “I want them to feel like they knew me when they were 16 and we were in high school together.”
After Rhett sat down with Billboard at his album release event, he joined the four producers of Life Changes (Julian Bunetta, Joe London, Jesse Frasure and Dan Huff) on the iHeartRadio Theater stage in New York City to detail how a handful of the songs came together. Take a look at some of the best takeaways below.
He wrote 50-60 songs for this album and had a really tough time narrowing them down. “It’s like having 17 kids and telling five of them you can’t come on the family trip,” Rhett said — to which event host Bobby Bones replied, “What a terrible analogy!”
He was supposed to help co-write “Craving You,” but had a sinus infection — and in fact, didn’t like the song at first. “I told him to listen to it more and more,” Bunetta recalled. “I said, ‘Here’s maybe an angle you’re not seeing that you would really thrive in.'” Once Rhett was on board, “I gave TR a ton of chances to put his mark on the song,” Bunetta said. Rhett responded with a smile, “I’m a stand-up guy so I didn’t take any of the credit.”
The sweetly specific lines about Mang-o-Ritas and the 14th of October in “Unforgettable” were actually made up. “We just randomly picked those,” Rhett explained, adding with a laugh, “I do love Mang-o-Ritas though, they’re great.”
He almost didn’t marry Lauren. Rhett said that after the track listing for Life Changes came out, lots of fans were saying they’d want to use his song “Marry Me” for their wedding. “That’s the song you [definitely don’t] want to play at a wedding,” Rhett laughed. “That was basically my ‘What if’ song — there was a time [Lauren and I] dated and broke up forever and almost married other people… That’s a very morbid thing to write about, but it’s one of my favorite songs on the record, I’m such a sucker for a sad song.”
He’s pumped he finally got to record a song with his dad [famed singer-songwriter Rhett Akins], despite the fact that he pokes fun at his dad at the end of “Drink A Little Beer.” “Every time I go to a radio station and there’s a programmer that’s been there for like 20 plus years, the only thing we talk about is my dad,” he told Billboard backstage. “There’s always these stories about my dad, and I just thought for country radio, it would be super cool for a lot of those programmers, and a lot of the people who knew my dad, to hear me do a song on my record with my dad singing on it.
“Even though the majority of the world will have no idea who Rhett is, that was one of those moments for me that I’ll be able to look back in 30 years and think, ‘Me and Dad did a song together, that’s awesome,”‘ he continued. “I’ll probably play it for my grandkids and be like, ‘This is your great-grandfather singing on my record.’ We also wrote this song [together], so to have him sing on that just made a whole bunch of sense.”
Lauren wanted him to release the demo version of “Die A Happy Man.” Although Rhett’s biggest hit to date came from his previous album, the song came up in conversation when Rhett mentioned that Lauren has “demoitis” (meaning she loves the demos more than the recorded versions). “‘You gotta tell Dan [Huff] he didn’t do it right,'” Lauren said about releasing the recorded version of “Die A Happy Man,” according to Rhett. As a result, “Dan is afraid of my wife,” he joked.
He’s proud to consider “Kiss Me Like a Stranger” a bedroom jam. “I feel like that song’s gonna result in a population boom,” he laughed. “If anyone’s trying to get lucky, just put that song on.”
He’s never had a better time recording an album. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio,” Rhett said. “It’s 100 percent a true Thomas Rhett record. If I’m having fun, I would hope you’re having fun listening to it as well.”