What’s The Deal With Thomas Rhett?

Thomas Rhett spoke to Pollstar on the heels of winning two big accolades, Male Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year (“Die A Happy Man”), at the Academy of Country Music Awards, which Rhett accepted with tearful modesty. It’s a career-changer and he’s well aware of it.

He is wrapping up the spring leg of his “Home Team Tour” and about to hit the summer festival circuit. Meanwhile, he has dropped the single “Craving You” featuring Maren Morris, which follows seven No. 1 hits.

This interview is all over the place, spanning recent shows playing to 260 fans in Belgium and 12,000 fans in the U.S. to why you shouldn’t “eat the mic” to a new publishing deal with partners Rhett Akins (his dad) and Virginia Davis (his manager).

Thomas Rhett
John Shearer
– Thomas Rhett

OK, here’s an idea: I’ll read off some box office figures and we’ll get your take on them. In November, we have a show in the Netherlands that drew 700 people and one in Belgium that drew 262. That’s cool; it’s overseas.  But then the next one is Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne at 8,017. What’s your story?

When I hear those numbers I think back to Amsterdam and I think to myself, “That’s the first time I’ve ever played a show in Amsterdam, period.” I don’t think they have any kind of country radio at all in Amsterdam, and we sold the place out. Even though it’s really small, it’s crazy to go overseas and see that many people show up, especially in a town where they don’t speak English. And a town that doesn’t have a country radio presence.

Then, going to Belgium, as small as that show was, I’ll never forget it because I’ve never seen people more happy to see somebody in their entire life. They were, like, “Thank you so much for coming to our little town of Antwerp because everyone always skips us and goes straight to Amsterdam.”

And when you talk about the War Memorial Coliseum, man, going into this year I literally tried to convince my management for a solid six months not to let me headline. I said, “Please let me go out with Luke or Dierks.  I’m not ready; I’m terrified.” But they said it was time for me to break out from the pack and see what kind of numbers I could do.

So they told me about that show and another show in Baltimore that seated 12,000 people.  I said, “You’re crazy for putting me in that building.”  We went there in March and put 12,000 people in it. The entire place was sold out except for a couple seats.

So when I hear those numbers it makes me think back to the past five years and all the hard work we’ve put in to making the show what it is, and all the credit is due to the band and the crew.  From 200 people in Antwerp to 12,000 in Baltimore. It’s just been a crazy year to see the growth of how big my show has become.

After the award wins at the ACMs, did you see an immediate change in the atmosphere?

I just don’t think of myself [as being] on that level. Does that make any sense?  I’m not trying to understate it but being in a category with Keith Urban and Chris Stapleton and Dierks Bentley and those people, I just felt like a child next to those guys. Not even because I’m younger than they are but because those are my idols and I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be in that category. 

I was just a bit shocked, honestly. Winning song and male vocalist at a big awards show, man, that’s like a “big boy thing,” if that makes any sense.  I was shocked but I was very honored; I will remember it forever.

So did any long-lost relatives come out of the woodwork?

Ha! I definitely got more texts that night from my family and friends than I ever did after an awards show.  It was just a crazy night, man. 

My wife and I are still talking about how shocked we are that we’ve won those awards. We’re just grateful, man. We put in a lot of hard work and it was amazing. It was a really cool night.

OK, your tour isn’t exactly over if you’re on the summer circuit and off to Europe in the fall. Still, it’s the festival season.  Do you anticipate any changes because of the awards?

I think, from a fan’s perspective, when they look at a poster and see a four-day festival – for example, Country Stampede in Manhattan, Kan. – where they talk about the headliners and then Thomas Rhett, ACM Male Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year, I think people look at that and, even if they’re not familiar with the music, it makes them pay attention to me a little more. Maybe if they were not planning on rolling in at 8 p.m. that night from their campsite, they might now. 

But I think the biggest difference between the Home Team Tour, from March to May – and it picks back up in September to November – I think the big difference is on those shows I get to control the environment. They’re all in rooms, it’s always dark, and your production is always there. You can control the atmosphere; you get to pick who your openers are.

There’s something really nice about knowing that everyone who came to that concert bought a ticket to see you. I think I’m more confident when I’m doing my own headlining arena shows because at the festivals there’s such a wide mix of people and they might have bought a ticket for the whole weekend but all they want to see is Luke Bryan play on Saturday night, know what I’m saying?

It definitely makes you step up your A-game because most of the time those stages are not compatible to fit all your production. So, all of a sudden, when you don’t have your elevator and your drum set that you play on the elevator, it changes the course of the show and it forces you to come up with different creative ways for those fans to really enjoy your show. 

I think that’s the biggest difference between a summertime show and your tour in an arena.

Thomas Rhett
Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP
– Thomas Rhett
Thomas Rhett sings “Star of the Show” at iHeartRadio Music Awards at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., March 5.

It seems that playing a festival stage would be like stepping back to the club days where you’re “naked” – all you have is your personality and guitar.

It really is. I think having both of those things ready in your back pocket is what makes Entertainers of the Year entertainers of the year, if that makes any sense. Somebody who can go to a club and hold 2,000 people’s attention with just a guitar and also go to an arena and entertain 16,000 people with all the lights and bolts – I think every artist has to be great at both of those atmospheres.

You never know what you’re going to get thrown into. You never know what production nightmares you’re going to run into; you never know if your wireless guitar will reach all the way to the end of the thrust. All the stuff most people would never think about come into play during the summertime shows.

I just had an interview with someone who coaches people to not “eat the mic.”  And he said it is the toughest thing to get people to stop doing.  That’s the question: Do you still eat the mic?

I remember when I was playing shows two years ago before I started playing with any kind of vocal coach or choreographer or stage-movement guy.  I remember the mix in my ears was screaming. I didn’t have enough in my vocal and I was literally eating my mic to the point where I could smell my breath on it the next day when I got to sound check.

I think when you do that, you really wear your voice out. A lot of it is adrenaline and when you get to the point where you’re listening to the crowd and you’re asking them how they are, and you ask them to scream, and when they scream it makes you want to scream.  I think the people’s voices who last the longest are the people who are disciplined enough to pull away from the mic about an inch and be able to have that composure to sing those intricate verses, intricately, in a live show.  

That’s why so many times people are so sharp or so flat. They’re pushing so hard that they’re not even singing the song correctly.  I can say last year was the first time I’ve made it a point to not eat the mic and to sing the songs the way I sing them on the record.

I pretend I’m playing in a very quiet room with a bunch of pads on the wall and I’m singing into a very nice microphone.  I think when you do that and you listen back to your show on YouTube, you’re going to be a lot happier with yourself than if you push and scream the whole time. Really, if you listen back to yourself, you’re going to sound like an idiot if all you’re doing is yelling and screaming like everybody else.

Home Team
John Shearer
– Home Team
Back row: Thomas Rhett, Rhett Akins. Front: Virginia Davis, Eric Olson

So what’s this new venture, Home Team Publishing?

I’m still technically a Sony writer but in my last deal I did with Sony I was able to work in the concept of me starting a third-party entity.  I think I’ve always had a heart for finding young writers that had a knack, whether they know how to write a song or build a track, and sign them early so that when we look back in six years they’ve written 15 No. 1 songs I can say I had a bit of ownership in their development.

That makes it sound as if you’re giving back rather than making a financial investment.

Yeah, a little bit. I especially always wanted to start a company with my dad. He’s one of the partners along with Virginia Davis.  He was responsible for grooming me as a young songwriter. I feel like you have three generations of songwriters giving their perspective to other young songwriters and a way to continue the brand of Home Team. We’re just excited to start that company and sign talent.

How does one run a company like that while on the road?

Well, the good part is that we teamed up. My dad and Virginia are also partners with Roc Nation, one of the biggest management companies in the world, owned by Jay Z and Beyoncé, and Jay Brown.  They kind of financed our publishing company.

Virginia has hired a couple of people to help run it. We only have one songwriter right now so all it really requires on my behalf is to bring these young songwriters out on the road and let them write with me and write with others, and just get them conditioned as to what it means to write on the road and what it means to write in town.

I kind of have the easy job; my dad and Virginia have the harder jobs.

Thomas Rhett & Virginia Davis
John Shearer
– Thomas Rhett & Virginia Davis

You can find Thomas Rhett performing next at Stagecoach in Indio, Calif., April 30. Visit Rhett’s Pollstar artist page to check out his upcoming tour routing.