“This is the first place I ever stage-dived,” Thomas Rhett says as his van pulls up to Boston’s House of Blues. It’s barely 8:30 a.m., but this is going to be a busy 24 hours: It’s release day for Rhett’s third album, Life Changes, and he’s celebrating by playing shows in three U.S. cities where he held some of the first sold-out concerts of his career. (An afternoon show in Philadelphia featuring friend and former tourmate Brett Eldredge and an evening in Chicago are also on the itinerary.) Each location is swarming with fans who’ve been in line for hours.) Says Rhett, “As soon as this idea came out of my mouth I was like, ‘What did I just say?!’ ”
But it’s that adventurous spirit that’s made Rhett, 27, Nashville royalty. With his feel-good lyrics and bold blend of funk and R&B influences, he is Music City’s answer to Bruno Mars. (And with eight country airplay No. 1s — most recently his Maren Morris team-up “Craving You” – and now a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, he has the hits to prove it.) When he takes the stage in Philly around 2:30 p.m., fans are singing every word to songs that have been out for mere hours. Rhett, for his part, is both elated and relieved. He deleted iTunes off his phone for this launch, hoping to save himself from getting sucked into reading the comments, but he still found that sleep was hard to come by the previous evening.
Such success is in his blood: His father is renowned songwriter Rhett Akins, who’s penned tunes for Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. When Rhett first pursued music after dropping out of college, he says, “I was just trying to be my dad.” But after embracing his genre-bending style for 2013’s It Goes Like This, he began topping the charts with hits like the Bee Gees-esque “Make Me Wanna.” Says Rhett of the evolution, “I played shows for a year and then I started to listen to pop music a ton. I just started to enjoy [the music] a lot better than what I was doing.”
Now he’s juggling more than just music. Rhett and his wife, Lauren, adopted daughter Willa Gray, 1, and brought her home from Uganda in May and then welcomed daughter Ada James in August — some truly cosmic timing Rhett sings about on Life Changes’ charming title track:
I remember the day I told my Daddy and Mama you’re gonna have a grandkid, yep
From Uganda, that’s right, we’re adopting
And she is the cutest little girl that you’ve ever seen
Well, I was wrapping my head around being a dad
A bigger wrench got thrown in the plans we thought we’d had
Now Lauren’s showin’ and got one on the way
Yeah, that’s two into two, hey, what can I say?
Before and after each show, and even once from the built-in phone on the private jet carting the band around today, Rhett calls or FaceTimes his family.
After his last show of the day in Chicago, over a 10 p.m. victory meal of chicken wings, Rhett says it’s important to write candidly. Earlier this year, he asked superstar Kenny Chesney for his advice on how to become a stadium-headliner. Chesney’s answer was perhaps more succinct than Rhett expected: “Be authentic,” he said. “I think people want to know that they could have a beer with you.”