At 29, Thomas Rhett is Re-defining Country Music

Both in the songs he writes and the ones he chooses to record, Thomas Rhett has been chipping away at country music stereotypes without actually shattering them. He still sings of drinking too much and loving too hard — just as Hank Williams did — but he brings to his work what might be called “suburban sensibilities.”

Before we plunge into some of Rhett’s deviations from conventional country, let’s pause to wish him a happy 29th birthday today (March 30).

  • “All-American Middle Class White Boy”

    In 2014, Rhett opened the New Faces Show at Country Radio Seminar with his good-humored “All-American Middle Class White Boy.” Humor aside, though, it basically marked the boundaries of his artistic territory. “We wasn’t rich, but we wasn’t poor/Lived on a cul-de-sac ‘til my parents divorced,” he sang. Other than the down-home affectation of saying “wasn’t” when it should have been “weren’t,” he made it plain where he stood–no phony odes to picking cotton, digging coal or begging for bread. Here was a 21st Century kind of guy for 21st Century country music. In case the intro weren’t sufficient to brand him, his lyric later that said he “went to a private school for a couple of years” certainly made the point.

  • “Die a Happy Man”

    So who does he name check in his songs? George? Merle? Waylon? Not hardly. In “Die a Happy Man,” he says, “Between the bottle of wine and the look in your eye and Marvin Gaye.” Well, were we expecting “Billy Ray?” Rhett alludes to such non-American sites as “the Northern lights” and “the Eiffel Tower at night.” Nothing alarming here. People travel these days, you know. And not just to Detroit City.

  • “Unforgettable”

    In “Unforgettable,” he croons, “That mango-rita you were drinkin’/And that Coldplay song you were singing.” A pretender to country authenticity probably would have said: “that Conway song you were singing?” What we have here — dare I say it? — is a man of wide-ranging references.

  • “Get Me Some of That”

    When we arrive at the frisky titled “Get Me Some of That,” we find Rhett making more cracks in the country armor. “You’re shakin’ that money maker like a heartbreaker, like your college major was twistin’ and tearin’ up Friday nights.” Can you imagine Hank cuddling up to Audrey and asking, “Was your college major honky tonkin’?” All these years later, he might have.

  • “T-Shirt”

    In “T-Shirt,” Rhett utters, “Your hair messed up like a Guns N’ Roses video.” In “Vacation,” he confides that he’s “Got a couple of bucks, but I’m spending them like pesos / Might be Motel Sixing, but it feels like the Turks and Caicos.” Sure, that’s stretching for a rhyme, but think of how many fans he sent scurrying to Google. The man’s an educator.

  • “Life Changes”

    Finally, there’s Rhett delightful and autobiographical “Life Changes,” in which he speaks of his “college dorm” of “majoring in undecided” of his wife having “a blue check mark by her Instagram” and of adopting a daughter from Uganda.

What may we expect from this New Country hitmaker next? Thomas Rhett & The Silicon Valley Boys?

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to