After being named Male Artist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and earning the title of country radio’s most played artist of 2018, it’s safe to say that Thomas Rhett has made his mark on the genre. By now, fans have come to know the elements of a Thomas Rhett song: blending country twang with telltale hallmarks of pop or R&B, plus a whole lot of adoration for his wife, Lauren. However, the hit-maker’s latest album, Center Point Road, may actually be the truest representation of his artistic abilities and ambitions. For the first time, Rhett co-wrote every track on the album. For this project, such direct engagement in the writing process was necessary; Center Point Road is named after the street where Rhett grew up in Tennessee—only the man who has lived the memories that played out on that small town road can tell its stories.
Despite the album’s autobiographical nature, Rhett was far from alone when crafting its songs. His father, Rhett Akins, brought his legacy of creating country music hits to the three of the album’s tracks: “Look What God Gave Her,” “Barefoot,” and “Dream You Never Had.” While the tracks pull from varying genres and differ in lyrical tone, they unite to paint a picture of Rhett’s marriage. This is not the first time Rhett has enlisted his father to help pen some of his most personal songs. Akins co-wrote “Life Changes,” the title track from Thomas Rhett’s 2017 release. Anyone who has their radio dial fixed on country radio already knows that when this father-son combination teams up, a hit follows. The infectious “Look What God Gave Her” has already spent thirteen weeks on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. For Rhett, this song represents a challenge that paid off. In the past, Rhett paid homage to his wife in smooth, soulful tracks like “Die a Happy Man.” This time, he set out to write a love song people can dance to.
Jesse Frasure, who has been writing for Rhett since 2015, also returned for Center Point Road. His influence can be felt on some of the album’s most sonically diverse tracks. “Up” opens with keyboards that morph into a hip-hop worthy beat, and, eventually, the track gives way to horns that make listeners bop along to simple lyrics: “You can never go up/ If you never been down, down, down.” Yet, there is nothing simple about the track’s gospel-inspired backing vocals. “VHS” may have corny lyrics that seem as if they were created in response to a stock photo of a pool party, but it is the album’s most overtly pop song, complete with tinges of funk. Despite these forays away from more traditional country music, Frasure also teams up with Rhett for “Remember You Young,” a shining example of what keeps both men tied to the realm of country music. Heavy with nostalgia, the song carries out the decades-old tradition in country songwriting of looking at life from childhood until old age and seeing friends, family, and faith at all steps: “Yeah, I hope when we get to heaven / He looks at us all like we’re kids / Shameless and painless and perfect and ageless /Forgives all the wrong that we did.”
In addition to his team of co-writers, Rhett collaborates with other stars: Little Big Town, Kelsea Ballerini, and Jon Pardi. In a statement, Rhett explained the joy he finds in making music with other artists: “If I could have a friend on every single song, I would probably do it… just because I feel like making music with your friends is so much more fun than doing it yourself.”
On each of those tracks, the fun the artists are having is palpable. Perhaps this is because while the tracks remain distinctly at home on Center Point Road, none of the other artists sacrifice the qualities that make them distinct voices in modern country music.
No matter how the songs vary in musical influence or who held the pen for each, producer Dann Huff’s touch is apparent. For a non-traditionalist like Rhett, there couldn’t be a more sensical match. Huff has made a career out of marrying pop with country even before the debate of what constitutes true country music generated the traction it has today. Center Point Road may give some ammunition to the argument that this merging leads to sub-par songwriting (look to “VHS,” “Sand,” and “Blessed”), but the rest of the album stands as a testament to this type of innovation.
Thomas Rhett’s catalog shows a portrait of a man with a lot of love and gratitude in his heart, and Center Point Road is another manifestation of those feelings. As he sings on “Dream You Never Had,” “You married the music the day that you married me / Baby, I’m just the singer and you are the songs that I sing.” It’s hard not to root for a man who so constantly pours out appreciation for the life he has and those that contribute to it. Whether this gratitude comes across over R&B grooves, pop hooks, or reflective keyboard melodies, seems to be beside the point.