Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Center Point Road, the fourth album from country singer Thomas Rhett.
God knows there’s been enough writing about the legacy, and the relative “dead”-ness of “bro-country,” and god knows I’ve written enough about it myself. But to not discuss it here, when considering the superlative fourth LP from Thomas by-god Rhett, would be trying to parallel park with a neck brace on. Which is to say, circa 2013-’15, T. Rhett was right in the middle of “bro-country,” writing what remains the best Florida Georgia Line song (“Round Here”), and the best song about beer math¹ ever (“Parking Lot Party”), and releasing his 2013 debut, It Goes Like This, and touring the world. And then Chris Stapleton came along, wielding Bro-Breaker, selling more albums than any country singer in the last four years, and striking fear in the hearts of many guys named Chase, Canaan and Hunter.
But Rhett saw the change coming sooner; he actually partnered with Stapleton for two songs on 2015’s superlative Tangled Up, including the smash “Crash And Burn,” which not only sounded like a ’60s R&B single filtered through Garth Brooks, it featured Stapleton on backing vocals. Unlike Florida Georgia Line — who’ve done at least two full-on authenticity pivots since Stapleton passed Winterfell — or Sam Hunt — who decided to sit in his Red Keep and sit out the Wars of Bro-Country Kings the last four years — Thomas Rhett was ready to make pop rock country jams that pulled from many genres, and still retained his goofy earnestness. Which is why 2017’s Life Changes felt like such a bummer; where Tangled Up could go full Crue and Frampton-funk on back-to-back tracks, Life Changes went full “Being Married Rules” stately country, a Randy Travis album from 1987 that time-travelled to 2017. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the album you expected after Tangled Up.
Center Point Road, however, feels like the album Rhett was gearing up to all along. It’s a masterclass in pop-rock jams, an album that somehow manages to turn straightforward country quarter Little Big Town into his own New Power Generation (“Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time”), feature Decemberists mariachi horns (“Beer Can’t Fix”), and still have a ballad about loving a truck (“That Old Truck”). Center Point Road is the album that Justin Timberlake wished his Man Of The Woods was, an album that could bridge the back-to-the-fields-working-class-people-need-pop-music-too moves of mainstream country with lite R&B and James Taylor piano ballads. This goes beyond just dominating the country charts; this is Rhett’s Red, an album with enough country signifiers to keep it in that part of Spotify, but enough “this is a big pop song” moments to maybe push him to the pop charts, where he belongs.
Rhett was one of the only country performers who avoided getting into “is this country enough?” debates centered around Bro-Country; he knew he was making music for a branch of country fan that never listens to just country anyway. “I’m from a playlist generation,” he told me in 2015 when I interviewed him for Noisey. “From the time that iPods came out, when I was in 9th grade, or whatever, it was everything from Cash Money Millionaires to Merle Haggard to Fall Out Boy; it was everything across the board.” That’s borne out in Center Point Road in a more direct way than Tangled Up. Rhett goes from funk (“Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” “VHS”), to power ballad (the title track, “Notice,” “Blessed,” “Almost”), pop finger-snappers (“Up,” “Look What God Gave Her”), to the best ode to getting fucked up since the height of Bro-Country (“Beer Can’t Fix”). Rhett is also ready to pivot to full Jimmy Buffett if he needs to, too (“Sand,” “Barefoot”).
That sense of no-boundaries fun is maybe the underlying thing that makes Rhett special; there’s never a moment on any of his albums where he doesn’t seem like he’s having a fucking blast. He’s not worried if you think he should sound like Stapleton, he doesn’t care if you don’t want to hear him try to will himself into the leader of the Revolution, he’s here to lay down albums that sound perfect when you’re six beers and four brats deep, standing in your backyard contemplating the breadth of the human experience. There will be many country — and rock — albums this year that will be more serious and more aesthetically “good,” but this is the one I’ll be grilling to all summer.
1 This is not necessarily germane to this discussion, but when buying a case of beer in “Parking Lot Party,” Lee Brice yells, “14 of them are mine,” which brings up the possibility that someone specifically paid for ~42 percent of a case of beer, and Brice wanted to make sure everyone knows that he paid for ~58 percent. Which makes Brice either very money conscious or kind of the villain of a song about drinking beer in a parking lot because he claims more than half of the case before they even leave the store. But since Thomas Rhett co-wrote the song, maybe he’s the villain. Anyway, food for thought.