When he hits the stage Saturday, Thomas Rhett will be the first country artist and solo performer to play Pinnacle Bank Arena three times.
That news came as a surprise to Rhett, who’s been coming to Lincoln since he started touring six or seven years ago.
“That’s incredible,” he said. “That’s super cool. We’ll have to make something special out of it.”
This time around, Rhett will have more than the 20 minutes he played as the first support act for Jason Aldean in 2013 or the 45 minutes he had opening for Florida Georgia Line in 2015.
“It’s a full-on big show,” Rhett said. “It’s my second headlining tour. If you saw my show last year, the production is very different. The set is very different. We’re playing a lot of songs off the new record that we didn’t have a chance to even bring in to rehearse for the last tour. It’ really is a new show.”
That new record is “Life Changes,” the chart-topping album that Rhett somehow managed to write and record while in the midst of touring.
“I wrote this entire record on the road,” he said. “Every single song was written on the bus. When I started having kids, the last thing I wanted to do was to go into town to write and leave them at home. Fortunately, my co-writers will come out with me on a two- (or) three-day run. We’ll wake up at 10, write two songs a day. I can come home from a run and have six, seven songs written and one of them will make the record. Some of my biggest hits have come from writing, coming back to the bus.
“We’ll sit in the bus, drink coffee and talk, talk about song titles, melodies whatever. The next thing you know you’ve written three songs in two days.”
To capture those songs, Rhett has a ProTools recording rig in his dressing room at each show and a second one on the bus.
“If we feel like laying a track down, we can just do it,” he said.
Writing on the bus also gives Rhett a chance to test a song on an unsuspecting audience, something he did the first time while he was opening for Aldean with his breakthrough hit “Die A Happy Man.”
"We wrote a song and the same night, I played it acoustic in my set,” he said. “When people hear a new song, that’s usually time to go get a beer. But they sat there and listened and really reacted to it. That’s why that song is so special to me. That was the first time that ever happened. ... I love being able to road-test the songs.”
Rhett may or may not road-test any songs Saturday. But he’ll sure be playing “Die A Happy Man” and the rest of the hits that pushed him from playing bars — he swears he played at least one in Lincoln early on — to headlining arenas.
Dropping out of college to pursue a career in music at 20, Rhett wrote songs for the likes of Aldean (“I Ain’t Ready to Quit” and “1984”), Florida Georgia Line (“Round Here”) and Lee Brice (“Parking Lot Party”).
By September 2013, the Billboard country airplay chart had five songs in the top 10 written by Rhett, whose full name is Thomas Rhett Akins, and/or his father, Rhett Akins, who taught Thomas how to write songs. That chart included “It Goes Like This,” the title cut of Rhett’s debut album and his first No. 1 hit.
The success put Rhett on the road, playing clubs and jumping on bigger tours as support. While his songs were on the radio, he was plugging away.
“It’s the slow climb,” Rhett said. “The more artists I talk to, like Dierks (Bentley), Aldean and (Kenny) Chesney, they had moments where they jumped up. But they were doing it year after year after year. There’s something that might be nice about overnight success. But there’s something rewarding about doing it the way we’ve done it.”
For Rhett, the jump came with his 2015 album, “Tangled Up,” and “Die a Happy Man,” which spent two months on top of the country charts starting in Dec. 2015.
“Before we released ‘Die a Happy Man’ as a single, we were playing pretty consistently to 2,000-3,000 people a night,” he said. “My management went, ‘We should try the headlining thing, see how many people would come see Thomas Rhett in an arena?'
“Last fall, we filled the Yum Center in Louisville. How do you go from 2,000 people to 16,000 people in a year? It’s really amazing what a hit song can do for you."
"Die a Happy Man” changed more than Rhett’s career. He said it made him a better, more honest songwriter.
“After ‘Die a Happy Man,' people want to hear the real stuff," he said. “That’s freeing. There’s no more getting into a room trying to write a generic hit. If you can have a hit that really touches people, that’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
The success of “Die a Happy Man” and “Tangled Up” put the pressure on Rhett for the follow-up, which became “Life Changes.”
He’s still constantly touring, which keeps him away from his wife and childhood sweetheart Lauren, and little girls Willa and Ada. He now understands why Akins wanted to be home with him and his younger sister years ago.
“I try to get home as much as I can,” he said. “But I understand this is what I’ve got to do. Maybe I’ll take a few months off, sometime.”