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Thomas Rhett has become the Warren G. Harding of today’s pop country

Thomas Rhett, Warren G. Harding

Thomas Rhett, Warren G. Harding Green Room PR, Harris & Ewing

To understand affable country millennial Thomas Rhett, we need to consult our 29th president.

“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing,” said soon-to-be-President Harding to an assembly of rich SOBs in the spring of 1920, in what history would call his “Return to Normalcy” speech. “Not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration;… not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise…” You get the gist. Nobody in history craved a zipless fuck like Warren G. Harding.

Nobody, that is, until Thomas Rhett, whose Dispassionate Equipoise Tour hits the Xcel on Saturday night. Just kidding. Its real, much less interesting name is the Very Hot Summer Tour—“VHS,” get it? Me neither. True to his tour-naming approach, Rhett is uniquely unexceptional. His latest album Center Point Road uses smooth, moneyed production sounds—syncopated bass throbs, layers of barely noticeable keyboards, Nashville session-pro guitar fills as expert as they are anonymous—to create music that, half the time, has no allegiance to any country signifier, musical or lyrical. This is pop music scientifically calibrated to go down easy. It’s frictionless.

Every aspect of Rhett begs to be enjoyed and then forgotten. Hatless, his curly hair and beard wreathing his head like the fluffiest loofah or homemade knit, the phenomenally successful singer-songwriter could be any cuddly dad staring at his phone on curriculum night. Over the course of four albums, his twang has receded like Mel Gibson’s Australian accent, rendering him the most anonymous singer on country radio; you only know it’s him after you’ve mentally exhausted the other drawlier, or raspier, or poppier possibilities. 

Likewise, Rhett’s last two albums have settled into a rut of pleasant marital uplift. (All happy families are alike, etc.) It’s not that he’s bad at his job. Being bad would make Rhett exceptional, like the turgid Jason Aldean or the repulsive Old Dominion. It’s just that nothing bad — or arresting, or provocative, or jarring—happens in his recent music. When Rhett imagines his own death in the power ballad “Grave,” it’s to assure his beloved, “I may be six feet deep, but I’ll still be lovin’ you,” which is way less goth than George Jones. His tunes are all as fluffy as his tea-cosy dome. Scandal is as unimaginable as a strawberry roan or getting drunk on a plane.

Watch him perform “Look What God Gave Her,” his latest finger-popping Country Airplay number one, at April’s Academy of Country Music Awards, and you can see the frustrating appeal. Everyone likes the guy. Tough-looking dudes in cowboy hats grin graciously and bob their heads. Nicole Kidman beams. Everyone in the room — including the song’s subject, Rhett’s wife Lauren Akins — shimmies and sways to this trifle, which brushes past its only intriguing line, “I know she’s got haters,” to prattle about things like angels and the way Akins twirls. Hold up! Who are these haters? Why doesn’t Thomas Rhett care that people hate his wife? Does the family struggle with the haters’ misplaced hostility? Have there been, like, difficult conversations and restraining orders? Most of all: Why amplify the haters’ resentments in song if you’re not going to deal with them? Rhett shrugs before skipping across the stage: “It ain’t her fault/Look what God gave her.”

Akins pops up throughout Rhett’s catalog as wife, angel, muse, and—in what may be a first for country music spouses—Influencer. The bouncy piano-and-electrobeats song “Life Changes,” a number one hit last year, brags about how she’s “got a blue checkmark by her Instagram,” efficiently baiting both traditionalists and people who write sociology-of-country dissertations. The couple smooches in the video for “Die a Happy Man,” a 2015 number one that sounds like Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” with just enough pedal steel to avoid a lawsuit. Former high school sweethearts, they’ve been married longer than Rhett’s been cutting records, and the latest album’s apologetic ballad “Dream You Never Had” thanks Akins, sweetly, for living in the shadow of her husband’s touring schedule. Unfortunately, that’s the only compelling song idea he’s gotten out of the marriage.

Rhett wasn’t always this bland. His first two albums, It Goes Like This and Tangled Up, had a bunch of songs where he made out with women you couldn’t mistake for his wife because they lived in different apartments. His first rocking single, “Something to Do with My Hands,” approached Johnny Cougar or Nickelback levels of crassness. Its accompanying debut album closed with an 11-12 punch of heavy twang, “All-American Middle Class White Boy” into “Beer With Jesus.” That’s right, these were actual song titles worthy of Teen Titans Go!—and some of the richest self-parody in any genre this decade. 

For a while, country seemed a fertile field for Rhett and his co-writers to exploit and subvert, from the smooth R&B of “Make Me Wanna” to the Southern soul players’ anthem “Crash and Burn,” with backup grunts trundled in from Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.” Tangled Up did what its title promised, tangling country with rap and Gorillaz and whatever else Rhett was streaming. He rapped, and then he hired LunchMoney Lewis to rap well. Those two albums threw down parties and gauntlets.

Throughout his career, Rhett has heard his share of haters grousing, “He’s not really country!” Usually this argument is boring, because it assumes all country songs have certain essential elements in common. (For a rebuttal of this fallacy, see Ludwig “Hank” Wittgenstein’s '50s honkytonk classic “Family Resemblance.”) But in the hands of artists themselves, arguments over country boundaries can get more interesting. For one thing, boundaries give artists something to transgress. Rhett’s earlier work sounded both more country, and more not-country, than his newer stuff; it was just more, and Rhett seemed to relish the feeling of getting away with something. Not surprisingly, he’s an “Old Town Road” fan.

Now the smoothness is all. Forget “VHS”—the key Thomas Rhett summer song is a deep cut called “Smooth Like the Summer,” a whiz of bass throb and propulsive melody depicting Rhett’s idea of naughty behavior: “Go on and groove like a mother with your back-seat lover, tearin’ clothes off each other all night.” For most of us, summer is the least smooth season, three suffocating months spent sticking to our car seats and our own thighs. For Rhett, it’s a nonstop glide of grooves and consequence-free sex. Sounds pretty good while it’s on, and you’ll never need to think of it again.Now, the smoothness is the point.

Thomas Rhett
With: Dustin Lynch, Russell Dickerson, Rhett Akins
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: 7 p.m. Fri. Sept. 7
Tickets: $104 and up; more info here