It’s been a long journey from Thomas Rhett’s boyhood home on Center Point Road, Hendersonville, Tennessee, to the stage of Madison Square Garden, New York City. But for this 2019 CMT Artist of the Year, it’s been a steadily accelerating one.
In support of his latest album -- which just happens to be titled Center Point Road -- he recently sold out the house at the world-famous venue and thrilled the crowd with his songs and energy. As one reviewer observed, “During the upbeat party anthems ‘Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time’ and ‘Vacation,’ [he] cranked things up about 15 notches to the point where the floor of the Garden actually started vibrating.”
It wasn’t Thomas Rhett’s first time to play the Garden. He’d done it twice before, opening for Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. But this time he owned it, and to compound the thrill, his dad, Rhett Akins, opened for him. And there was another New York landmark he played this past year -- the revered and enduring Saturday Night Live.
In spite of his cascade of career highs, Thomas Rhett still seems a bit dazzled to have been chosen for the CMT honor. “I never wanted to assume that I would be an Artist of the Year,” he says. “When I was first starting out, I looked at Miranda and I looked at Dierks and I looked at Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line and all these people that I’d opened for, for so long, and it was like thinking, 'I’m always just gonna be here. I’m always gonna be opening for somebody.' But in the last couple years since we’ve transitioned from the opening slot to headlining the same arenas that I was playing in with Jason and Luke and FGL, it’s weird to view yourself as on the same playing field.”
Of course, his evolving set list sparkles with a lot more than the party anthems his Madison Square Garden crowd rocked out to. More than most young artists, Thomas Rhett has delved deeply and honestly into his own life story for songs, whether it’s the delightful coming-of-age romp “All American Middle Class White Boy,” the philosophically mature “Life Changes” (in which he chronicles his maturation from aimless college boy to responsible fatherhood), or the elder statesman perspective of his current heart-melting single, “Remember You Young.”
But it was his 2015 blockbuster, “Die a Happy Man,” that gave him the stature, impetus and courage to really reveal himself -- and his love for his wife -- to his fans. As he told CMT, “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. ‘Die a Happy Man’ 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.’”
He reckons that the song gave him the legitimacy and assurance to reveal himself not just as an artist but as a distinct individual. “It allowed me to be as personal as I wanted to be,” he says. “Before that, 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 it didn’t really work that well on radio. I think I was too new of an artist for content that deep at that time. I don’t think people knew who I was or knew how to take that song. So I shied away from anything personal [after that] for a minute. I just wanted to put songs out that felt like radio singles, that were up tempo and made people wanna have fun, made people wanna dance.”
Fans have taken “Die a Happy Man” to heart with a zeal he could hardly have imagined. “I mean literally every night in our concert, someone gets engaged to that song,” he says. “It's crazy. Like you look out in the crowd and there's a flashlight on somebody in Section 345 who got on a knee and proposed.
Thomas Rhett was steeped in country music from an early age. His father was a bright star at Decca Records in the late 1990s, co-writing and scoring such hits as “That Ain’t My Truck” and “Don’t Get Me Started.” The younger Rhett made his recording breakthrough in 2012 with “Something to Do with My Hands,” which took him to No. 15. The next year he netted the first of his string of No. 1’s with “It Goes Like This.” It’s been a swirl of chart-toppers and memorable music videos ever since.
Remembering the events that brought him to his present eminence, Thomas Rhett says it's still too much to fathom. “There's been a lot of things that have happened to me in the last 10 years that you could call 'career-defining moments.' Whether it's, say, our first No. 1 single, whether it's the first time playing the Opry, the first-time selling out a 200-seat club and then, now, in 2019, you're selling out an arena. I look back at my life, and I go, 'I cannot believe where we started to where we are now.'
“But if I had to pick one moment -- and I know I've already talked about it -- I would say a song can literally change everything about your career. You can be cruising and you can have success, but I think that when you have one beast of a song, it can really change your whole dynamic. It changes your whole future. So when 'Die a Happy Man' came out and did what it did, it shifted my life and my career forever.”
Currently the Academy of Country Music’s male artist of the year, Rhett will continue to tour through the end of 2019. With these incredible achievements, it’s clear why he’s one of 2019's CMT Artists of the Year.
17 singles released (13 No. 1’s, 4 gold, 7 platinum, 4 multiplatinum)
4 albums released (3 platinum)
CMA Awards (song of the year, 2016; music video of the year, 2018)