Thomas Rhett Resets His Priorities: 'I Had to Figure Out Who I Was Without a Guitar'
His marriage struggles behind him, the dad of three discovers that pouring himself into his family life is the fuel he needed for his new double album, Country Again
Even before the pandemic, Thomas Rhett says, he was already starting to reassess his priorities.
"I put a lot of weight in the last decade of 'I'm Thomas Rhett, the artist,'" he tells PEOPLE for this week's issue of the magazine, "and I just don't think that is how I can do this for the next 50 years."
Still, it took being yanked off the road last year for the 31-year-old Tennessean to finally realize, "I had to figure out who I was without a guitar."
Leave it to his wife, Lauren Akins, who last year wrote a best-selling memoir about her life and marriage, to offer some gentle direction. As she watched Thomas Rhett frantically try to fill his days with work projects, she posed a simple question: "Why don't you be productive here?" She was referring, of course, to the Nashville home they've made for their three daughters, Willa Gray, 5, Ada James, 3, and Lennon Love, 14 months.
"What my wife said put me back down to earth," says Thomas Rhett, "and reminded me, 'Hey, you are more than just a singer, you know. You're a dad. You're a husband. You're a friend.'"
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Ever since, he says, he's been measuring his priorities on a brand-new scale: "One day I'm gonna look back and go, well, when I was 31, was I putting everything that I had into music and leaving scraps for my kids and my wife — or did I put enough into being a good dad and a good husband?"
Once he began rebalancing his life, he says, he also discovered something unexpected: pouring himself into his family was refueling him musically.
"I've never been more creative," says Thomas Rhett. "All of a sudden, my co-writes were just incredible. It was like everything was flowing out for a reason."
The resulting double album is titled Country Again: Side A and Side B — with the first half due out Friday — but Thomas Rhett also calls it his "things-I've-learned-from-the-pandemic record," and it brims with the sort of self-revealing songs that have turned him into a superstar.
The title track, in particular, "kind of tied up everything for me," he says. Indeed, its lyrics are a roadmap to what's most important to him, embodied in the word "country," and it ends with this poignant coda: "I saw the light, I found the way home / Thank you, Lord, amen / Man, it feels good to be country again."
"That song was just about living such a fast-paced life and always just moving on to the next thing," Thomas Rhett says. "I think I was just on this mission for more all the time. And it's fun to say today that I do feel like I'm living the most present that I have been in a very long time."
Another song on Country Again, "Growing Up," follows in the footsteps of other autobiographical life-stage hits such as "Sixteen" and "Life Changes." Now that he's in this thirties, the growth theme is especially fitting, Thomas Rhett says, since he spent his twenties often being made to feel he'd gotten ahead of his years.
"For the whole last decade of my life," he says, "I would talk to people and they'd be like, 'How old are you?' And I'm like, 'Uh, 23.' They're like, 'Oh, you're a baby.' Or 'You're getting married, and you're 22? You're so young.' But for some reason when you tell people you're 31, they're like, 'Oh yeah, you're 31.' It's like the moment you've crossed 30, you have entered the other side of the path."
And, Thomas Rhett adds, he does finally feel "grown up."
"I've completely accepted the fact that I'm no longer young," he says. "I'm not old, but I'm not young anymore. I've just embraced adulthood. And I think that has kind of shifted into the way that I write songs with a little bit more maturity in them."
His growth has had a significant impact, as well, on his relationship with his wife. In her 2020 book, Live in Love, Lauren described how Thomas Rhett's all-consuming career recurringly put them at odds, especially in 2016 and 2017, during the year-long process of adopting Willa Gray from a Ugandan orphanage.
"That time in our marriage was sad — to wake up to the fact that we were on two different wavelengths," Thomas Rhett says. "We had to get back to this oneness, and to saying, 'You tell me what you need from me. I'll tell you what I need from you. And let's try to compromise here and try to figure it out.'"
With the help of counseling, the couple has since been able to bridge the distance between them, he says. "Just being vulnerable with each other," he says, "has made our marriage tenfold better."
They also are attentive to mindful practices that strengthen their relationship. One new habit has been "fasting" from the snooze button, an idea that Lauren borrowed from a friend. For all of February, when the alarm sounded at 5 a.m., the couple got up so they could have some precious togetherness before their daughters' day began. "It was hard because I really enjoy my sleep," Thomas Rhett admits, but "that was our time to really connect with each other. I've never seen more fruit from any other practice that we've done."
The couple also hosts a regular Monday night get-together for friends, with husbands and wives separating into two groups to share their day-to-day stresses.
"That is my weekly check-in," says Thomas Rhett. "It's been pretty incredible to talk to other men who are married. And the girls get to talk about ... um, us." He chuckles in self-awareness. "Then we all reconvene afterward and sort some of that stuff out. Even though it's not professional therapy, it's therapy to me."
Now preparing to tour again this summer, Thomas Rhett says he's "never felt more energized to go back on the road, to go play for people and to take all the lessons that I did learn in 2020 and apply them in my life moving forward."
He knows he still hasn't figured it all out yet. But he's also confident he's making progress.
"There's this quote that I love," he says. "It's like, 'I don't want to wait till I'm 80 to figure out who I want to be.' You know what I'm saying? Because you've got a lot of work to do if you haven't figured it out by the time you're 80!" He laughs at the thought. "I'm trying to just figure it out now so that when I am 80, I can just be like, man, I made some cool decisions in my life that allowed me to experience life to the fullest."
For more on Thomas Rhett and Country Again: Side A, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
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