Thomas Rhett was a college student, up late studying for a test, when he started thinking about what kind of questions he might ask Jesus. In his study-induced haze, Rhett imagined sitting at a restaurant or pizza joint with Jesus, asking him about life and love and whatnot. Rhett was also working as a musician in Nashville, Tenn., at the time – he’s from there – and so at some point he sat down with some musician friends to write a song about his imagined meeting with Christ. “They asked if I would have a beer with Jesus,” said Rhett, 23. “And then I had my title.”
“Beer with Jesus” became Rhett’s second single, released in 2012, and made into the top 20 of various country airplay charts. His fi rst single, “Something To Do with My Hands,” also did well on country radio.
While “Beer with Jesus” sounds like a title that couldn’t be anything but a country song, Rhett is actually a musician who believes a song does not have to fi t into a neat box to be “country.”
“I know a lot of people writing (country songs) on computers, making beats,” said Rhett. “A lot of us grew up with hip-hop or rock, and that gets into the music. You can take a country lyric and do anything with it.”
Rhett will bring his progressive attitude toward country music to Portland when he plays a show at Asylum on Friday.
At first glance, you’d think Rhett would be steeped in country music tradition. He grew up in Nashville, toddling around the house while his father, Rhett Akins, was establishing himself as a performer and writer in the country music business in the early 1990s.
So Rhett was always surrounded by music, always played instruments and sang, and always played in bands. But he says he never really thought about a career in music.
“I guess being around music as much as I was I just never thought of it as my profession,” said Rhett.
So he went to Lipscomb University in Nashville, majoring first in physical therapy, then business and finally, communications.
But he was also playing shows around Nashville. One night he was playing in a cover band, opening for another a band in a club, when he was spotted by a music company executive. That led to a publishing deal in 2010, and he began working full time as a songwriter.
He wrote “I Ain’t Ready to Quit” on Jason Aldean’s “My Kinda Party” album. About a year later, Rhett released his self-titled debut album.
But he still continues to write for and with other musicians. He co-wrote the recent singles “1994” by Jason Aldean and “Parking Lot Party” by Lee Brice.
“I think when you write songs you always think of yourself as a songwriter first and foremost,” said Rhett. “Writing and performing are two opposite things. I love writing, but still there’s nothing like walking out on stage and playing for a packed house.”
Rhett says he and his father are more like friends than father and son, partly because they both work in Nashville, and they both write songs.
“We do the same work, we know all the same people,” said Rhett. And they like the same music, which includes a lot more than country. “Just last night my dad and I went to see the Rolling Stones,” said Rhett. “My dad’s the biggest Rolling Stones fan. And I like Poison, and all the rap and hip-hop that was floating around my junior high school. That’s why I can’t just do a straight country song.”