PITTSBURGH – At the beginning of the year I was having a conversation with my Dad about golf; specifically the new breed of golfers who are now leading the charge as the world’s best players.
As a man in his mid-60’s who follows the game closely, he had a particularly slanted, “get off my lawn” attitude toward the 20-somethings (Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler) who have taken the place once held by the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.
As the conversation continued, I told him, “Get used to it or follow another sport, because these are the guys you’re going to be seeing at the top of the leaderboards for the next 10 years.”
I bring up this conversation because country music has reached the same tipping point.
Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt ushered in the current movement, while neo-traditionalists like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Kip Moore have updated their sounds in the same mold – i.e., drum machines, synths, programmed beats, electric guitars, guest raps and flourishes of R&B.
This brings us to Thomas Rhett.
Rhett burst onto the scene in 2013 with It Goes Like This after previously spending time as a Nashville songsmith, writing songs for Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. With It Goes Like This, Rhett dabbled in everything from traditional country to bro-country, 70’s pop and hick-hop, all with a dusting of blues and rock.
Much like the joke with Eric Church is, “if Chad Kroeger (of Nickelback) were born in Nashville and added songs about trucks to his repertoire of drug and sex odes, we’d call him Eric Church and write think pieces about his subversion of the country music paradigm,” the same could be said about Thomas Rhett.
Rhett’s subject matter that leans heavily on beer, partying, girls, southern culture and the glory days of yore are straight out of the ‘Country Music 101’ book of songwriting (especially with songs like album closer “Beer With Jesus”).
But Rhett’s willingness to experiment sonically is what set’s him far apart from the traditionalists who dabble in the same end of the lyrical pool that he does.
And while his sound firmly entrenches him alongside the likes of Hunt, FGL and Aldean, he takes it a step further (how many country artists can follow up a 70’s neo-soul pop song like “Make Me Wanna” with a hick-hop stomper “Front Porch Junkies” as Rhett does).
While he laid the foundation for this style with It Goes Like This, his latest effort, Tangled Up expounds on these ideas even further, pushing the envelope of what we call country music in 2015.
Album-opener “Anthem” wastes no time coming out of the gate with drum loops, synths and driving guitars that blast out of the speakers, underscored by Rhett’s cool, confident and catchy vocal performance.
“Anthem” sets the tone for the rest of the album. Each song is its own ‘event’, per se, packed to the gills with bristling guitars, drum loops, synths, keyboards and Rhett’s layered vocals.
Subtle this album is not.
“South Side”, “Vacation”, “I Feel Good” and “Tangled” deviate the most from anything resembling #CountryMusic, sounding closer to Maroon 5, Justin Beiber and Nick Jonas than Tim McGraw, Eric Church or Dierks Bentley.
The only thing keeping these songs #Country is Rhett’s lyrics about “Memphis, Bud Light Lime, toes up in the sand, solo cups and Walgreen’s beach chairs,” (as well as the occasional banjo lick thrown in for good measure).
This goes back to the golf conversation with my Dad – this is country music in 2015. While it may sound like I have a negative opinion of all of the aforementioned songs, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Each song is upbeat, catchy and immediately establishes a mood while delivering exactly what you could ask for in a three minute pop song.
Even more traditional offerings like “Die A Happy Man” have a very 2006-era John Mayer sound to them (think “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room”), while “Like It’s The Last Time” sounds like a song Luke Bryan wishes he had recorded. “Crash And Burn” takes the call and response vocals from Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” and updates them into a song about lost lovers.
Overall, Tangled Up is everything Rhett could have hoped for. He establishes himself as a young, genre-crossing talent whose songs are at once crafty and catchy and fit perfectly in a car radio, concert hall, gym or arena while still sounding good on tiny laptop speakers.
It’s a welcome time for a changing of the guard in country music. Having Thomas Rhett lead the charge makes it that much better.