Thomas Rhett is one of those singers who is about as country as Church’s chicken — Southern, certainly, but going for mass appeal so hard that any regional flavor is incidental, really.
In other words, his music is delicious. A little fattening, maybe. His songs contain enough details to be convincing and enough clichés to be popular.
He’s very popular. Rhett will be 28 at the end of the month, and his second straight RodeoHouston appearance March 7 came just in the nick of time. His latest single, “Marry Me,” happens to be the No. 1 country song in the nation this week. It’s also his tenth No. 1 country song just three albums into his career.
So yes, Rhett would be easy to hate if he weren’t so dang likable.
He’s easy on the eyes, too. He looks like he sounds: scruffy but wholesome. Based on his stagewear, black satin jackets and white T-shirts, Rhett and his band would not be out of place in the next Pitch Perfect sequel.
Looks aside, though, these guys also delivered the big sound a successful rodeo appearance demands. (March 7's announced attendance: 60,204.) It was there in opener “T-Shirt,” an upbeat throwback to '90s pop-rock role models Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind; or the sorry-not-sorry anthem “Crash and Burn,” which — here I’m dating myself and I don’t care — sounded like a killer Kenny Loggins tune pushed 40 years into the future.
Rhett has been vocal about his admiration of Bruno Mars, and it shows. It’s a shame he didn’t break out his “24K Magic” cover, but it wasn’t missed thanks to the pulsating disco-pop of “Craving You,” which didn’t suffer much for the lack of duet partner Maren Morris. “Vacation,” meanwhile, borrowed a riff from the Beastie Boys or Red Hot Chili Peppers to give off that unmistakable whiff of Spring Break. Coconut water and Coppertone…mmmmm.
But it could have easily gone the other way. Rhett is hardly immune to singing about back roads and such, but he gets away with it because he’s affable and relatable enough to make the audience believe he’s singing about real stuff: a cute girl in a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt; becoming a dad; living it up at a Motel 6 or, in “Grave,” the Good Lord finally calling you home. (What a great title.) The twist in “Marry Me” — a wedding song full of magnolias, missed opportunities and a trusty hip flask — is worthy of a Hugh Grant movie.
Besides, Rhett is perfectly aware of who is singing all those big choruses back to him. The island-pop of “Make Me Wanna” brought the night’s first swoon. “Star of the Show” reads like a love note with all the I’s dotted with hearts (or in modern terms, an emoji-packed Instagram caption). Standing in the middle of an enormous stadium, Rhett managed to collapse all that space to the point he might as well have been sitting on the edge of a bed.
Another one that didn’t need much embellishment was “Die a Happy Man,” Rhett’s biggest hit to date (the ultimate fate of “Marry Me” notwithstanding), his final song, and a damn fine song to boot. Its message is as simple as its melody: it’s the little things that matter most — the sight of your wife in a little black dress, dancing with her by a fireplace — because that’s what you hold onto when the initial moment is long gone.
Songwriters and performers who understand that, and apply it to their craft, can go far indeed. Rhett seems to get it. So did the two ladies dancing behind me, right there in the middle of the concourse, in a way that the people who started streaming up the stairs in order to beat the traffic probably didn’t.
Thomas Rhett set list
Make Me Wanna
Star of the Show
Get Me Some of That
Crash and Burn
Die a Happy Man