Thomas Rhett Wants to be “Country Again.”

To be country again, you had to have been country in the first place, at least at some point. And country is as country does. You want to be country? Then be country. Don’t tell us about being country. Chances are if you’re telling us how country you are, it’s because it’s not self-evident you’re country, or you’re trying to make up for not being country enough.

Thomas Rhett has spent the lion’s share of his career not being country. At times, it’s felt like his music has purposely gone out of the way to be everything but country. Bruno Mars has been his primary musical influence over the last few years, self-admitted by Rhett himself. Now he wants to be “Country Again,” which is the name of his upcoming album due out on April 30th, and also the name of his newest single being sent to country radio.

“Country Again” follows his previous single, “What’s Your Country Song.” See paragraph one. Though “What’s Your Country Song” surely included the titles of a lot of country songs in the lyrics (an old, tired trope), it didn’t sound especially country with it’s electronic drum break and arena rock guitar. “Country Again” actually does sound country, with its phase guitar opening, and prominent fiddle and steel.

But just because something is real country, doesn’t mean it’s real good. Ultimately, “Country Again” is just another list song full of easily-recognizable country signifiers, just like “What’s Your Country Song,” and just like almost every mainstream country song that isn’t trying to tap into the other hyper-trend currently in the mainstream: Boyfriend Country.

But hey, if Thomas Rhett wants to get into the business of making actual country music, the last thing we should do is get in his way. Hell, more power to him. Listening to the two other songs he’s released ahead of his new album—“Want It Again” and “Growing Up”—they also show great promise. Perhaps Thomas Rhett has turned a new leaf. Perhaps he has “grown up,” and wants to get back to his roots—or more accurately, finally tap into them for once.

Thomas Rhett’s career has been propped up more than most anyone else’s by undeserved awards and corporate radio. Sixteen #1 singles and an ACM Entertainer of the Year trophy for this guy? And how many of those #1’s can you name off? Does he really have any hardcore fans? Starting in about 2016, Thomas Rhett became the Big Machine anointed cash cow since he was willing to record and release almost anything, and work choreography into his arena shows. He became product, and that’s what his music has continued to be for the most part, a good song here and there notwithstanding. Thomas Rhett’s wife might be more interesting than him, something else he’s self-admitted, partly because he exudes not signature style or personality.

But since 2016, mainstream country music has continued to improve amid the slow implosion of Bro-Country, and it’s also become decidedly more country sounding, born off the success of guys like Chris Stapleton, Luke Combs, and Jon Pardi. This has allowed other artists to get in on the action. In 2021, Carly Pearce and Lainey Wilson have released records in the mainstream that are decidedly more country. Canaan Smith just released a new record that is also surprisingly more country than his previous output.

If Thomas Rhett wants to join in, it could only mean rank improvement for mainstream country with the way radio finds such favor with him. “Country Again” will very likely be a #1 hit, because it’s from Thomas Rhett, and radio will push anything from Rhett to #1. And if it is a #1, it will probably be one of the most country-sounding #1 singles since Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication.”

In many respects, this might be what Thomas Rhett must do to insulate himself from becoming synonymous with a trendy style of country, where you sink when the trend expires, sort of like what we’ve seen with Florida Georgia Line and Bro-Country. Or Rhett may get the sense that the next trend in country is country, and is trying to tap into that, or stay ahead of the curve. Or he might just be trying to grow old with his music now that he’s reached his 30’s. This is how guys like Tim McGraw have sustained their careers in the mainstream as long as they have.

Then again, maybe Thomas Rhett just wanted to make a country album, and has finally now earned the latitude to do so. But let’s see how all of this plays out. Let’s wait for the entire record. And let’s see what Thomas Rhett does afterwards. As we’ve seen from Dierks Bentley and others, sometimes a cool, rootsy project is chased with a Black-style monstrosity.

But let’s also not let our cynicism get in the way of a good thing. Both the single “Country Again” and what we’ve heard so far from Thomas Rhett’s new album is promising. Hopefully he fulfills that promise of making a full country record, and then makes another. After all, the full title of the new album is Country Again: Side A. But let’s also hope it’s country from what it does, not just what it says. Because more than anything, being country is something that is self-evident. It’s also about being yourself.

© 2021 Saving Country Music
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