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Country singer Rhett draws inspiration from pop stars

Thomas Rhett may be the only country artist you’ll ever hear listing a former member of N’Sync as an inspiration.

It’s an even safer bet that Rhett — who last week set the Guinness world record for the biggest game of Twister at the release party for his new album “Tangled Up” at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — is the only country artist who’ll admit to taking dance lessons and being concerned with the choreography of his shows.

“As weird as it may sound coming out of my mouth, I’m probably the biggest country music fan that is such a fan of Justin Timberlake and of Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift,” declares Rhett, the son of country troubadour Rhett Akins. “When you go to shows like that, it makes you think to yourself, ‘What in the world am I doing in my show that’s like half as cool as this?’ You know, you go and watch a Justin Timberlake show, and you watch all the moving parts, and you watch how confident somebody like Justin is on stage, the way that he moves and the way that he interacts with the crowd and the way that he sings; his band just looks good, and his dancers look good — not that I want, like, 40 background dancers or anything.”

Just the same, the former Mouseketeer’s show inspired Rhett to dress up his own a bit.

“But after that, I started incorporating this thing with my band,” Rhett reveals. “We do this thing called ‘Suit Saturdays’ now, just because I kind of noticed that it would be, like, Saturday, and we’ve already played three shows, and so we’re putting on sweaty jeans from Wednesday night and a ratty old T-shirt and a pair of sneakers or boots, and we walk out there and do our show, and there’s nothing special about what we look like, or there was nothing special about our show.

“I just wanted to go for it, man, because I know that there’s not a whole lot of people in our genre that are taking choreography lessons from Justin Timberlake’s choreographer and really trying to dress up for the fans and make it more of a show, rather than just, ‘Hey, here’s 15 songs. Hope you liked ’em. See ya.’ I want to make people have memories. I want to have so many moments in my show that you walk away and you can’t pick a favorite moment that you have. And I think it just stemmed from me liking so many different styles and genres of shows and really trying to find my favorites and incorporate them into what we do.”

While the quality of his shows is clearly a priority for Rhett, he knows that if you really want to register with fans, it starts with selecting songs that resonate with them. With that in mind, the Georgia native turns to his wife, Lauren, as a sounding board when he’s sorting through the songs he wants to record. (They met in first grade and married three years ago, and she’s the inspiration for a lot of Rhett’s songs, including his latest “Die a Happy Man.”) She helps him vet the ones that are the most moving and relatable.

“Any song that gets pitched to me or any song that I write — you know, if I can tell that she’s not going to like it, I’m probably not even going to play it for her,” Rhett says. “But if there’s even a remote chance that I love it and that I think she may enjoy it, then I always play it for her. If it passes the ‘Lauren test,’ then it usually means it’s going to pass the test for a lot of girls our age across the country.”

As important as it is for Rhett’s songs to reach folks, ultimately, he just wants to put a smile on everybody’s face. That’s the goal.

“I just noticed that all of my music tended, for the most part, to be super happy and upbeat, and I guess, you know, basically, just describing my personality,” Rhett says. “My goal, I guess, as I got in this business, if we can put smiles on people’s faces, then I think that is more so our job than anything else, to go out there — because you never know what walk of life somebody is that’s sitting up in the nosebleeds, but just because you said something that made them laugh or smile, could mean the difference in a whole lot of things. So that’s kind of our mission statement, as an artist and a band.”

Mission most definitely accomplished, as those who’ve heard Rhett’s new platter, “Tangled Up,” can attest, particularly tunes such as “South Side,” which is about as funky as a country song can get and still be considered country. “Basically, it’s a country wobble, is what it is,” Rhett observes. “If you can’t just kind of let your guard down and smile and let loose a little bit after you hear that song, then there might be something wrong with you.” The same can be said for tunes such as “Vacation,” whose funk-inflected bass line sounded similar enough to War’s “Low Rider,” to Rhett’s ears, that he added the ’70s funk act as co-writers. And then there’s “Anthem,” the foot-stomping ditty that opens the album and completely lives up to its name.

” ‘Anthem’ is a song that I really wanted to cut, strictly to put as number one on the album, because I plan on opening with that song for the next foreseeable future,” Rhett says. “I just think that song brings such a fantastic energy to open a show with, and I think it really sets the tone for what else is to come on the album. It’s basically, the chorus is saying, ‘This is an all-night anthem,’ and it’s a melody that is never going to leave your head.

“You can dance to every single song. So, for me, making a second record, I just wanted me playing these shows to be a ginormous good-time party for everybody. And when we do slow it down, it’s because you’re physically exhausted from jumping up and down that we need to give you a break for a second. We really structured this record in a way of like a set list, like one to 13 down is basically a set list for the next year of our lives. Last night, we played that set list for the first time, and it was so much fun and so much energy to play.”

The whole thing sounds pretty thoughtful and ambitious for an artist that Wikipedia considers “bro-country,” a designation that doesn’t so much bother Rhett as befuddle him, the notion that everything these days must have a handle. “I think it’s hilarious that we live in this time where have to literally label everything,” he muses. “Like it can’t just be good or bad. You know?

“I mean, I don’t really know how you listen to ‘Make Me Wanna’ and ‘Crash and Burn’ and say that I’m lumped into that category. I feel like they’re both as far away from that as it could possibly be.” In fact, the latter tune almost has a slight doo-wop feel to it, with the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” in the verses and the turnaround in the chorus. “Someone, the other day, said it was ‘Mo-country, Motown country,’ ” he notes.

Whatever the case may be, if there’s any country artist right now who has a chance to cross over into the world of pop on the heels of Taylor Swift, the artist who helped pave the way for his label Valory Music, it’s Rhett.

Look out, y’all — or “Timber!” as it were.

— Read more from Dave Herrera at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at dherrera@reviewjournal.com.

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