Valory – the home of Reba McEntire, Brantley Gilbert, Jewel and Justin Moore – won out, and now it’s seemingly just a matter of time before the general public discovers the quirky word jumbles and infectious grooves that had Music Row salivating over Thomas Rhett’s future. The one that, in retrospect, seems as if it were always supposed to happen.
Even Thomas doesn’t completely understand it. “I don’t have a clue where it’s going to go or where it’ll end up, but the journey is cool enough for me,” he muses. “I’m here for the ride and to entertain people.”
And entertain he does. His debut single, “Something To Do With My Hands,” revealed Thomas as a solid country guy with a distinct urban streak. Other tracks from his debut show someone who’s clever enough to rhyme “Ryman” with “diamond,” who mulls chatting with Jesus over beer, who throws AC/DC hard-rock chants and Coolio hip-hop phrasing into songs that are otherwise country.
“Country, rock and hip-hop were what I was raised on,” he says. “It’s a strange combination, but it all leaks into what I write.” Odd as that blend might seem, Thomas’ twisted sonic concoction is part of a natural progression, one that saw him exposed to tons of music by a famous father, whose own rocky experiences with the music business made him wary of investing his talents in such an emotionally difficult vocation. Thomas’ full name – Thomas Rhett Akins Jr. – forever connects him with his dad, Rhett Akins, who earned a trio of Top 20 hits in the mid-1990s.
Concert tours took Rhett away from home often, beginning just a year or two before Thomas enrolled in school. But there was no father-son rebellion in the Akins household. Despite his tour schedule, Dad made it a point to be there for his son’s football games. And Thomas Rhett loved his father’s music – “I was five, jamming out to his records, going to kindergarten,” he recalls. He went on the road with the elder Akins, too. Sometimes his dad would bring the kid out to play drums during the encore at his shows. And there was a period when Thomas was eight or nine that he popped on stage to cover Will Smith. “I came out in a Green Bay Packers toboggan, a big shirt and baggy pants, and rapped ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,’” he remembers. There were other perks. He went to Reba McEntire’s Halloween parties. And he once got help on his English homework from some guy named Blake Shelton.
Seems glamorous from the outside, but the entertainment business can be ruthless. And the good times soon soured for his dad. Rhett Akins eventually rebounded, but in the meantime, that period in his dad’s career soured Thomas on that pursuit. “My whole life,” he insists, “I swore I was never going to do music.” He played sports in high school, and ripped up his knee in one major accident. That set his thoughts on kinesiology – the study of human movement – when he enrolled at David Lipscomb University in Nashville. Meanwhile, a friend had roped him into playing a fraternity party at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, which led to more frat parties – at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the University of Georgia in Athens. In the process, he was able to mesh those seemingly disparate parts of his musical influences: country, hip-hop, classic rock and modern rock.
In February 2010, Thomas Rhett signed a publishing deal with EMI and later, a record deal with Big Machine Label Group’s The Valory Music Co. “I think I’ve been directed here for a reason,” he surmises. “I still don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s to be some big star or if it’s to make a difference in somebody’s life along the way or to make somebody’s Friday night entertaining. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a journey, and I’m learning something new every step along the way.”