Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown takes a look back on 10 years of incredible music with Decade, a weekly segment that features a modern country classic that made its greatest impact between 2010 and 2019. This week, Thomas Rhett talks about his 2015 single, “Die a Happy Man.” Here’s Thomas Rhett, in his own words:
I branched out a little bit and I went to LA to write for the first time with some writers that weren’t really in our format. It was a guy named Joe London and a guy named Sean Douglas. We got into a random room in LA and we wrote one song and I was like, “Man, y’all should come on the road with me sometime.” They were like, “What do you mean, come on the road with you?” I was like, “Y’all should just come and ride my bus and we’ll go three stops in a weekend and we’ll write songs during the day.” And they were like, “All right, we’ve never done that before, but we’ll do it.”
They flew out to Little Rock, Arkansas, where I think we were on tour with Aldean that year. I think it was ‘15. And the first morning we woke up, we sat down and I said, “Man, I’ve never written a legit love song about my wife. Let’s try to do that this morning.” I don’t remember how the title “Die a Happy Man” came out but it was the first real song that we’d ever actually written together. I remember thinking of that, going, “Dang, this song is pretty good.”
We started to send it out to my manager and some of the folks at my label and I was like, “I like it enough that I’m gonna put it in my set tonight.” So we wrote the song that morning at 10:00 and I played it in Little Rock, Arkansas — forgot half the words but it didn’t matter. When you write a song like that, I don’t think you ever know how big a song is gonna be. I think that song came out at the perfect time, when there weren’t a whole lot of ballads on the radio and a time when there really weren’t a whole lot of love songs on the radio, at least love songs from a husband to his wife.
At that point in time a lot of people were starting to understand who my wife was and what kind of person she was and people started to love our marriage together. I think that song really came out at a perfect time and when it started to do what it did I was in shock. I was like, “How did I do this? How did we do this, with these people that had never been in a room together, and all of a sudden we created something that would become such a huge staple song in my career? And now one of the top 20 songs of the decade. I just think in this genre, the more real you can be, the better you are for it because I think people can always find themselves in your personal story just as much as you can. …
If I had written that song and no one had any idea who my wife was, or I wasn’t married, or I was whatever, I think it would have had a whole different effect. But I think that people knew who my wife was and how much that we shared each other on Instagram, and our love story. We’ve known each other since we were younger and I think it made that song come to full fruition. When people heard that, they saw the love story as well, rather than just hearing it in a song. They found themselves in our story a little bit, which I think is what made the song so big.
I’m still trying to remember all the emotions I felt going through that, but it was one of those songs. It doesn’t happen a lot. When you put a song out in 2019, a lot of the time a song will sit at No. 1 on iTunes for a day, or be a top streamer for a day, or get most added on the radio and zoom up to 25 on the chart. But if the song is not a big reactor, the next week it’ll be at 5 and the next week it’ll be at 10 and it’ll just kind of run its course.
But “Die a Happy Man,” when it came out, sat at No. 1, I wanna say for like 15 or 20 weeks or something like that on iTunes, and it started rushing up the radio chart. Even when it gained its big speed factor on the chart, it didn’t drop any. It just kept moving and kept moving. And when it sat at 1, I think it sat at 1 for five or six weeks — and those songs just don’t happen all the time. Those are like, one out of every 10 or 15 songs you release are gonna do that.
And it’s not because the rest of the songs are bad, it’s just because not every song gets the right timing and not every song tells the same story and songs are different. But “Die a Happy Man” was destined to be one of those songs that people were gonna love. I don’t know why or how, I’m just thankful to the Lord that he made it happen. Thankful to the fans that loved it and who have used it.
Literally every night in our concert, someone gets engaged to that song. It’s crazy. You look out in the crowd and there is a flashlight on somebody in Section 345. They got on a knee and proposed. When a song is that powerful and it’s a song that people are using as their first dance song at their weddings — that’s why you make music. You make music to make people feel what you felt when you were writing it. Make people feel about their loved one the way you feel about your loved one. To me that’s the power of what a song can do, and that one had the right place, right time, right sentiment, and right emotion.
I think it allowed me to be as personal as I wanted to be. … I had a song on my first record called “If I Could Have A Beer With Jesus” that still to this day is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever gotten to be a part of writing, but didn’t really work that well on radio. I think I was too new of an artist for that deep of content at that point in time. I don’t think people knew who I was or knew how to take that song. I shied away from anything personal for a minute. I just wanted to put songs out that felt like radio singles and put songs out that were uptempo and made people wanna have fun, made people wanna dance.
Right after “Crash and Burn” came out, which was the first single off my second album, we were like, “All right, I think it’s time to do something, it’s time to talk about my life for a second. I feel like nobody knows who I am at this point in time.” So “Die a Happy Man” was a true representation of who I was at that point in time, a true representation of how much I love my wife and how much she loved me and that love was cool and being married is cool.
I didn’t know how it was gonna work, I really didn’t. But when that song came out and did what it did, it inspired a slew of songs that ended up coming out on the radio. If “Die a Happy Man” had never come out, “Life Changes” would have never come out, “Marry Me” would have never come out, “Remember You Young” would have never come out. It really inspired me to be like, “Wow, people do care about who I am and what I stand for and what I want to say.”
That song gave me the confidence to go and then write songs from a way more personal standpoint and be able to talk about my marriage, talk about my kids, the struggle of being a dad, the struggle of all this stuff because people in real life are dealing with this stuff. It made me realize that people can relate to me through music way more than me just writing a song that felt good on the radio. It gave me the confidence to be able to say something. It’s that rare combination that every song is trying for, which is intensely personal and yet completely universal.