The first time Thomas Rhett came to Lincoln, he played to a couple dozen people at the Single Barrel.
Saturday, Rhett drew a few more to Pinnacle Bank Arena, filling the place with about 13,800 people.
That’s an indicator of the country singer and songwriter’s rise to stardom over the last half-dozen years — an ascension kicked over the top by the career-making smash “Die a Happy Man.”
That song, of course, came very late in Rhett’s 90-minute set. But the crowd packed around the runway in the middle of the arena wasn’t just waiting for the big hit.
It connected with the engaging Rhett from the jump — for good reason.
A born entertainer who started performing at age 10 in the Akins family's living room to “audiences” of his dad Rhett’s friends — such as Reba McEntire and Tim McGraw — Thomas Rhett Akins had Saturday's crowd screaming, dancing and singing along while he tore around the stage, took a lap of the floor on “Country Gold,” took selfies with fans’ phones and, oh, yeah, sang.
“In my whole seven years of touring, I’ve never seen a crowd this large and engaged,” Rhett said, repeatedly commenting on the audience’s volume.
Rhett’s also a born songwriter — which he proved on back-to-back acoustic rooted numbers — an emotional “Beer for Jesus” that he wrote at 19 and a stripped-down “Round Here,” the hit he wrote for Florida Georgia Line.
Before Saturday’s show, I heard someone disparagingly call Rhett the “epitome of pop country,” as if there’s something wrong with that.
In my view, the run of “Country Gold,” and “Make Me Wanna” into Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” melding urban-pop sounds with small-town party lyrics and the likes of the throbbing “Vacation” make perfect sense — moving country forward.
Two highlights of the fast-moving show: Rhett spotted a guy named Jeremy in the front row who wasn’t singing. So he pulled him on stage to sing Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places."
And he dedicated “Star of the Show” to his wife Lauren, who was at PBA after the two celebrated their sixth anniversary Friday.
Saturday was the third time the 28-year-old Rhett has played PBA — the most of any artist in the arena’s five-year history.
“I kind of feel like I’m from Nebraska now, which is kind of weird,” he said.
Get used to it, Thomas. You’re going to be back many, many times.