ALBUM REVIEW: Thomas Rhett – ‘Center Point Road’

Oh Dan Huff, you beautiful bastard! Sometimes an artist with oodles of talent collides with a producer with vision and a sound, like the Beatles did with George Martin, Michael Jackson with Quincy Jones or even Mutt Lange with AC/DC, Def Leppard and Shania Twain. Dan Huff, by far the most talented and impactful producer working within the Country genre right now, alongside fellow producers Jesse Frasure and Julian Bunetta has taken the talent, the voice and the songwriting ability of Thomas Rhett and moulded it into an album that is greater than the sum of its separate parts.

In a time when the recording industry and even the artists themselves stipulate that the idea of producing an album is an outdated and archaic one, Rhett has only gone and stuck his middle finger up at them by giving us a body of work 16 songs deep. Not only that but there is a link, a chronology and a story to be told through these songs that elevates ‘Centre Point Road’ head and shoulders above his previous work. The elephant in the room is that Rhett was potentially on the verge of doing a ‘The Band Perry’ – ok, that’s stretching it a bit perhaps because no-one is THAT stupid, right? But his previous album, the very patchy and confused ‘Life Changes’ hinted at a future away from the genre that had been so good to both him and his dad. For every song like ‘Drink A Beer’ on ‘Life Changes’ there was a ‘Leave Right Now’, meaning that the album was incredibly hard to pin down and assimilate as being from the same artist. Whilst I admire Rhett’s ambition and desire to bring change and growth to both his own career and the wider Country music genre, it put him in a very confusing position of being someone who had songs like ‘Beer With Jesus’ in his live set competing with a sort of ‘Country Bruno Mars’ tracks that he, apparently, was beginning to see as his future.

Enter Dan Huff.

What Huff has done on ‘Center Point Road’ is nothing short of revelatory. He’s tempered Rhett’s tendencies towards modern R&B a little whilst letting him explore a more traditional disco sound, that sort of ‘wacca-wacca’ guitar funk of Nile Rodgers and the Dan Reed Network (you won’t know who they are but I can bet you a limb that Dan Huff does) from the 70’s and 80’s whilst also adding some guitars back in to Rhett’s sound. So, whilst ‘Center Point Road’ still isn’t what the gatekeepers would define as a traditional Country record it has more elements of the modern version of the genre than his previous album. What’s fascinating to me is that Huff also produced ‘Life Changes’ so it’s clear that both artist and producer have learnt a lot since then about what and who Thomas Rhett should be.

Tracks like the album opener, ‘Up’ and hopefully future-single, ‘Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time’ still pay homage to Rhett’s musical hero, Bruno Mars, but are infused with way more guitars than they would be if they had appeared on ‘Life Changes’. ‘Up’ has a gospel tinged feel to its backing vocals by the end of the song and just listen to that guitar solo on ‘Don’t Threaten………’. The appearance of Little Big Town on the track adds a funk and a weight to it that hopefully carries it up the charts.

Further disco vibes can be found on ‘VHS’, which sort of feels like a left over from the ‘Life Changes’ days and is perhaps the hardest song on the album to digest whilst ‘Look What God Gave Her’, a track that Rhett sort advice on from Bobby Bones before pushing out into the world in advance of the album’s release, still retains very few semblances of Country sounds but, importantly, contains more guitars in it, thanks to Huff’s involvement, than it would had it been on Rhett’s previous album, despite the same producer being involved! And that is the genius of Huff’s involvement this time round – meeting Thomas Rhett’s desire to push the boundaries of his sound in the middle and tempering it with some more traditional guitar and production. I wonder which of them took more of a guiding hand in the studio because there’s a world of difference in both the production and quality on ‘Center Point Road’ than there was on ‘Life Changes’.

‘Look What God Gave Her’, though, is also a prime example of the step forward Thomas Rhett has made in his songwriting and also stands as poster child for his willingness to open up and show the fans a little glimpse into his personal life. Rhett has always had a penchant for writing about his wife, Lauren, and about their story. Songs like ‘Die A Happy Man’ and ‘Sixteen’ succeeded because they were personal, they meant something and weren’t just trite or ambiguous, throwaway pieces of saccharine infused pop. On ‘Look What God Gave Her’, and other songs like ‘Blessed’, ‘’Notice’, ‘Barefoot’ and ‘Dream You Never Had’, Rhett bares his soul to the world, exposing his feelings about his wife and family in a way that is both believable and relatable. The foibles of Lauren’s that Rhett choses to tell us about are personal, like her penchant for dancing barefoot when he sings, ‘Got her shoes up in her hand, like she’s somewhere in the sand’, or in ‘Notice’ when Rhett sings about, ‘The way you blush when you drink red wine………..the way you smile when you try to bend the truth.’

Special mention must be made for ‘Dream You Never Had’. This might well be the most personal song Rhett has ever written, it being an open letter of thanks to Lauren for living the ‘dream she never had’. It completes the trilogy of ‘Die a Happy Man’ and ‘Life Changes’ as being the songs that tell the story of Rhett’s life. Very few artists open themselves up in such an honest and endearing way and Rhett should be applauded for that.

Honesty and vulnerability combine with nuanced storytelling all over ‘Center Point Road’. The title track is possibly one of the best songs Rhett has ever written. From the vinyl crackles that herald the song’s opening, through to the unusual percussive, military-esque drum beat of the chorus, Rhett takes us on the journey of his life, from the road that influenced his early years through to the ‘parking lots and empty streets’, in which he and Lauren ‘wrote their own destiny’. Kelsea Ballerini is a superb addition to the vocals in the song, bringing a female perspective and narrative to, what is ultimately, an anthem and a superb example of what happens when Dan Huff and Thomas Rhett collide, like one big giant Country music Transformer!!

There are other songs that benefit from that mix of storytelling and ambition. ‘That Old Truck’ takes us knee-deep into Country territory. The truck might be a tired and contrived Country music trope but in Rhett’s hands the story seems fresh and believable, on this quieter, acoustically driven tale but perhaps the two biggest storytelling songs on the album are ‘Remember You Young’ and ‘Almost’. The former sees Rhett veering into Billy Joel, ‘Piano Man’ territory on a wonderfully constructed song about life, memories and what may come after whilst the latter is a kind of version of Garth Brooks’ ‘Unanswered Prayers’, which sees Rhett thankful for the things he almost did or didn’t do, like going to visit his grandpa the week before he died. Both songs have 70’s Classic Rock overtones that suit Rhett down to a tee and can only be a consequence of the team up with Huff and their willingness, this time round, to explore a more mature sound.

A couple of lighter songs, however, might well provide the hit singles. ‘Beer Can’t Fix’, featuring Jon Pardi, whistling and Mariachi trumpets could be a massive single. It offers nothing really innovative or has anything revolutionary to say beyond ‘there ain’t nothing that a beer can’t fix,’ but the production, the feel and the sound of the song is absolutely top-notch. Another crunching anthem, that really suits the back-end feel of ‘Center Point Road’ is ‘Don’t Stop Drivin’. Imagine the bastard child hybrid of Mellencamp, Huey Lewis and Journey! This is classic Americana in the commercial sense of the word, dripping in red, white and blue and crunching 80’s guitars. That Billy Joel / Mellencamp sound is where I would envisage Rhett might head after he’s done with the Bruno Mars stuff and it fits his voice and image perfectly.

There is no way to say this strong enough – ‘Center Point Road’ is a triumph. In these times where it is considered old fashioned to release an album, Rhett has gone and released a 16-track celebration of sound, lyrics, storytelling and production. This is one in the eye for the recording industry and could be a great touchstone for all those millennials and Gen-Zers who seem unable to cope with an extended body of work from the same artist without flitting around for something shinier and something new. This is a piece of work to be explored, to be savoured and to be taken seriously. It pushes the boundaries of modern recording techniques by being so delightfully classic and true to the way albums were constructed 20, 30, 40 years ago. It tells a story: you can dance, you can sing, you can cry. The coming together of Thomas Rhett and Dan Huff, and their willingness to push beyond the ‘Life Changes’ sound and feel has given Rhett the confidence, backing and production he needed to take his songs up to the next level but also given him a gravitas that he didn’t have before, to push into other, deeper areas without losing that sense of ‘disco-fun’ that he’s become so well known for. Dan Huff has produced albums for Faith Hill, Keith Urban, Bon Jovi, Lee Ann Rimes, The Band Perry, Racal Flatts and Martina McBride amongst many, many others but this is his crowning moment for me. ‘Center Point Road’ is a sonic delight and thanks to Rhett’s song-writing it has the lyrical depth and sense of fun to match those production chops. Triumph. Album of the year awards beckon and they would be well deserved.

James Daykin
Twitter – @rockjames
Portfolio – www.jamesdaykin.journoportfolio.com