Thomas Rhett is 26, but he’s been doing this songwriting thing for a while.
On Friday night at Royal Farms Arena, the rising country star was eager to prove it. Offering a video montage as evidence, the crowd saw him at age 8, high-pitched singing an original ditty. Then came shots of a teenaged Rhett having a jam session with friends.
Afterward, he emerged on a platform at the opposite end of the stage, signaling it was time to take an acoustic trip down memory lane. The Nashville singer/songwriter quickly ran through pieces of hits he helped write for other artists like Lee Brice (“Parking Lot Party”), Florida Georgia Line (“Round Here”) and Michael Ray (“Think a Little Less”). The crowd, which didn’t seem to need convincing, loved it.
Like many before him, Rhett’s route to filling arenas started behind the scenes. With songwriting credits came clout, which led to Rhett’s debut 2013 album “It Goes Like This.” On Friday, he made sure to revisit the record, including the swinging “Make Me Wanna” and “Beer With Jesus,” a ridiculous song that plays out just how you’d expect. (Rhett would “sip it nice and slow,” and put the tall ones on his tab.)
But the focus was “Tangled Up,” Rhett’s 2015 album that pushed his sound further from traditional country twang.
Like Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen and Luke Bryan, Rhett has embraced the genre’s increasingly blurred lines, incorporating synthetic sounds, collaborating with R&B singers and sometimes not attempting to include any country signifiers at all. (“I Feel Good,” for example, is a disco-lite pop track with a rap verse from the eclectic songwriter LunchMoney Lewis.)
When it works, such as the breezy “Star of the Show” — a Friday night highlight — Rhett comes off like a songwriting Swiss army knife.
Other times, it induces cringes, like “Vacation,” a silly up-tempo single that belongs in a Bud Light Lime-A-Rita commercial. It’s worth noting the largely filled arena likely would not agree, as Rhett had the crowd dancing most of the night.
The strongest moments of Friday’s concert, though, were songs that were unmistakably country. “It Goes Like This,” from his first album, has a bulletproof hook that takes off and never comes down. “Die a Happy Man,” Rhett’s best song, is a gorgeous love song with just the right amount of rhythm. They are songs begging for full-throated singalongs, and the crowd happily obliged.
It seems like a safe bet that Rhett will continue to operate in both modes. (As a business model, it’s working.) For his final song, he didn’t choose one of his hits or even a country song. Instead, it was Bruno Mars’ swaggering party-stomper “24K Magic.” In Rhett’s hands (along with openers Kelsea Ballerini, Russell Dickerson and Ryan Hurd, who all joined him on stage), it came off like lighthearted karaoke, with no one seeming to mind.
As confetti rained down, Rhett instructed the crowd to put their pinky fingers to the moon. As they soon waved goodbye, the four young singers appeared destined to have a huge hand in molding their genre’s future. What it will sound like remains to be heard.