Thomas Rhett has returned with his latest 16-song LP, Center Point Road. In his account, it is a record fuelled by nostalgia of life growing up in his hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee- evidenced by the title of the song, which is named after a road in the town itself. Thematically, it has all the credentials of a contemporary country record. On a musical note however, can it still be called country?
At this point in time, it is increasingly difficult to delineate the boundaries between one style of music or another. The success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is a major example of the trend of genre hybridizing that has been picking up steam in music over at least the last few years. Rhett’s record, while obviously not taking the same sort of radical risks musically does veer away quite a bit from what one might identify as standard country music, as many of his peers in the genre have as well. Depending on the listener’s perspective, this experimentation may be a boon or a major detriment to country or any genre of music- but let’s allow the tunes to speak for themselves.
The kickoff track, “Up”, opens with an almost classical piano track and lo-fi drums before venturing right into John Mayer-esque pop fare, repeatedly pushing the point that “You can never go up if you never been down.” By the end of the songs, a funky horn section has played throughout the choruses, as well as in a bridge section that breaks with the main drum track once more and ventures into church gospel. These soul themes carry on over into the party track “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time”, which, while featuring famed country outfit Little Big Town, veers even further off the dirt road from country and into the territory of a Bruno Mars record with Slash on guitar.
As far as “Threaten Me”‘s lyrical content goes, while alcohol has always had a place in the hearts, livers and porcelain alters of country artists, Karen Fairchild’s boast “Boy, don’t forget how I tore up those college friday nights” is a bit of a first- if this is an oversight, forgive it, but singing about off-the-hook keggers at the Delta Kappa Phi house would likely leave the average bear (or bear hunter) accustomed to lonesome numbers of beer and heartbreak at the honky-tonk scratching his head in bewilderment.
Rhett does get a bit closer to solid country with the slow jam “Blessed”, only to swing back to full-blown poppiness with “Look What God Gave Her”– Lyrics like “I know she’s got haters, but it ain’t her fault” make Rhett’s aiming for a more mainstream angle clearly evident (Him and Taylor Swift do share a record label after all). The title track, featuring Kelsea Ballerini is no different; the keyboards carefully done and the nostalgic verses delivered in a cadence resemblant of several Billboard hits in recent years.
This juggling back and forth between genuine country and a mutant form for the radio continues through several tracks, from the rootsy “That Old Truck” to the gimmicky “VHS” (as in Very Hot Summer)- through the acceptable “Notice” into a pit of twangy, try-hard cliches with “Sand” and “Beer Can’t Fix” with Jon Pardi. Those two in a row may be the first time in the record where Rhett’s problem is trying to sound too backwoods in an almost compensating way as opposed to not sounding backwoods enough- not to suggest he actually worked a cubicle job at Wells Fargo the last 10 years and wasn’t cranking back beers in Podunk, Tennessee, but it isn’t overly convincing either.
By Track 11, Thomas Rhett has 5 more tracks to save himself with, and it isn’t off to a good start- “Things You Do For Love” comes in with a pulsing fade-in, and if it weren’t for the slight bit of Southern affectation and acoustic guitar, it would likely be mistaken for a throwaway Chainsmokers song. He hits the reverse and circles back to old memories and soft chords on “Remember You Young”, then on to a couple more insignificant numbers that sound too much like the other ones- “Don’t Stop Drivin’” and “Barefoot”. 16 songs is a stretch for an album, and an artist has to know when to cut it off before it gets bogged down by repetitive filler. 11 songs would have been acceptable, but alas, our dirt road hero didn’t get the memo.
Rhett slows it down once more to make an ode to his wife on “Dream You Never Had”, emphasizing in many ways how much of a muse she is to his craft: “I’m just a singer, and you are the songs that I sing”. With the obligations taken care of, he can finally close out by coming full circle with his lyrical themes: Whereas on “Up” you could never go up if you’d never been down, on “Almost”, life would be nothing without the almost was-es and should-have-beens that flank along with the things that materialized and came true. With ying, comes yang, sayeth the country boy, and off he rideth into the sunset until next time.
To the average radio listener or casual country fan, Thomas Rhett’s contemporary effort blending modern country with mainstream themes is a blast and a half. To a purist, or to relax the language a bit, somebody with a more rigid definition of country music as it is however, Center Point Road is a flawed and unfortunate bastardization of a great genre of music. There are plenty of ways that an artist can reach crossover appeal and still hold the artistic integrity within their genre, but at the same time there are some boundaries that are better off not being crossed for the sake of the art.
A “country” record like this that only sounds like country part of the time, and at others not at all is a clear example of what happens when artists get too carried away with pursuing acceptance on the Billboard charts. While a talented man, it is therefore hard to take Thomas Rhett seriously with the majority of this record, and it is best that he focus in and make a decision on what he wishes to do- be a pop artist, or be a country artist, but in this case, do not attempt to be both. The ears of many will embrace whatever choice he makes.