Award-winning, hit songwriter Rhett Akins will be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in November. He’s part of the Class of 2021 that also includes Toby Keith, Amy Grant, Buddy Cannon, and John Scott Sherrill.
Akins has enjoyed a remarkable career as a songwriter after bursting onto the Nashville music scene as a successful recording artist in the 1990s. Akins hit with his signature tune, “That Ain’t My Truck” and with “Don’t Get Me Started.” Since then, he has gone on to write an astounding 31 number one singles, and he appears headed to the top again with Jon Pardi’s current single, “Tequila Little Time.”
“I’ve had a lot of should have been’s too,” Akins said. “I’ve had a lot of 2s, and 3s, and 5s and 8s. Once it gets around Top 10, it’s all labels and radio playing games with each other at that point. You just write them and hope for the best. I believe there are some songs that shouldn’t have gone to 1, and there’s songs that should have. You never know.”
In September 2019, Akins was named the first Songwriter of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music. One of his biggest accomplishments may be winning the CMA Triple Play award seven times. The award is presented to a songwriter who penned three #1 singles in 12 months. Notably, Akins has penned several hits with and for his son, country star Thomas Rhett, including the multi-week #1 “It Goes Like This,” “Get Me Some of That,” “Life Changes,” “Look What God Gave Her,” and “Star of the Show.”
In addition, Akins had a hand in penning the 4-week chart-topper for Dustin Lynch, “Small Town Boy.” Akins has also co-written hits for Luke Bryan (“I Don’t Want This Night to End” and “Huntin’ Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”), Chris Young (“I Can Take it From There”), Justin Moore (“Point At You”), Locash (“I Know Somebody”), Blake Shelton (“All About Tonight,” “Boys ‘Round Here,” and “Honey Bee”), Jason Aldean (“When She Says Baby,” “Just Getting’ Started,” and “Tonight Looks Good On You”), Jon Pardi, (“Dirt On My Boots”) and Brantley Gilbert (“What Happens in a Small Town”).
Here’s the video of Thomas Rhett’s hit “Life Changes,” which was
co-written by Rhett Akins.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Rhett Akins. He tells how he stays relevant in country music, and he recalls the bus stories behind several of his top tunes. He also explains how he stumbled across the title to his latest hit, and how being an artist gives him a different perspective as a songwriter.
BC: When you started off on the artist path in the 1990s, did you ever see yourself as a full-time songwriter one day?
Rhett Akins: Yeah, but I probably thought it would be way later in life. I’ve always been a songwriter no matter what, but my initial goal in moving to Nashville was to be a recording artist. I figured I would write a majority of my songs, and that would be my songwriter path along with being an artist.
BC: What changed about your life in music when you went from recording artist to full-time songwriter?
Akins: You could technically say that I was off the road less because I wasn’t playing three shows a week, but man, I’ve been on so many buses out with other artists to write with them that it almost felt like I really didn’t get off tour that much. I spend a lot of time on buses and parked behind arenas and club shows with an artist sitting there in a parking lot writing songs all day.
BC: Being an artist yourself, have you been able to bring a different perspective into the picture as a songwriter?
Akins: I think I do. I was thinking about it this week on this trip. As songwriters, the majority of us write our songs, they get cut, and we can look at the chart, and we know that they’re being played. It’s one thing to sit in an office and write a song and hear it’s doing good. It’s another thing to go out there and see it doing good. This weekend I played at Cheyenne Frontier Rodeo in front of 22,000 people, and to see everybody sing the words back—and I’m not even the artist; I’m just the songwriter out there—I think you get a totally different perspective of writing songs.
Here’s the video of Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell’s hit “What
Happens In A Small Town,” which was co-written by Rhett Akins.
I get to go on tour with Thomas Rhett a lot. I’ve opened a lot of shows for him. Every year we go on tour with Luke Bryan during his farm tour, and The Peach Pickers open up for Luke. You get a sense of that song that I thought was great back in Nashville didn’t work live like I thought it would. Sometimes it’s the opposite way…I don’t know about this song. Then you play it live, and people are, ‘Yeah, that’s a good one!’ I think you get a different perspective when you get to play in front of people. We do a lot of songwriter shows—all my peers in Nashville—we’ve all done our share of rounds. To see it in Wyoming, to see it happen in Texas, to see it happen in Wisconsin, seeing real people sing your songs, that makes a huge difference.
BC: Your latest chart hit is Jon Pardi’s cleverly titled, “Tequila Little Time.” How did you write that one?
Akins: “Tequila Little Time” is funny too. Jon Pardi wants us to come to California to write at his mom’s house where he grew up. Jon had built a studio above his mom’s garage. Luke Laird and I fly to California. We had written four or five songs that week, and his mom is always bringing us food up there. We called it Shelly’s Deli. She’d always bring us sandwiches, potato chips and drinks. Her mom raises bulldogs so there’s 15 bulldogs running around. Jon’s sister there with her kid. It was like we were writing songs at the Brady Bunch house.
It was the last day. We sat upstairs in the attic for an hour spitting out titles. We were all burnt out anyway, and it didn’t matter if we wrote another one. We had done a lot…we were trying to get one more if we could. I swear on my life; I don’t know where the title came from. It just popped into my head. There was no tequila. There was nothing to make me think of this title. Luke and Jon quickly jumped up off the couch and said, “That’s it.” Then Jon grabs a guitar and starts playing this old George Strait-feeling country thing, and we wrote it pretty quick. We put the vocal down, and then Jon said, “We’re missing something. I wish I had some horns on there, kind of like a mariachi band.” Luke Laird had a horn setting on his Pro Tools, and he put this little horn on there. It was fun…it’s a real light song. We thought the title was clever. That was one of those things where perseverance, sitting around brain storming and not quitting too soon, got us that song. Jon didn’t cut anything else that we wrote during that trip. Thank goodness that one popped out of the heavens for some reason. I can’t explain it.
Here’s the video of Jon Pardi’s new hit “Tequila Little Time,”
which was co-written by Rhett Akins.
BC: I want to ask you about some of your past hits. How did Thomas Rhett’s “Life Changes” come about?
Akins: “Life Changes” is a very special song to me and Thomas Rhett. We were doing a camp at our farm, and he said, “Dad, I really want to write a song about my life from college to now, how much my life has changed from the time I was 19 until I was 30.” He goes, “I don’t know if it’s a hit…it’s probably not. I just want to say something on the album.”
Even though Ashley Gorley and Jesse Frasure helped a lot, it was really cool to get Thomas Rhett’s full perspective of his life. But also, I know Thomas from a father’s side. Ashley and Jesse know him as a buddy, but they don’t know all the details of his life like I do. I think I’ve said some things that he forgot about or wouldn’t have said, and he said some things that I didn’t know. Ashley and Jesse were great with the music and helping out with the lyrics too. I think it was a good combination of writers to tell a true story about his life.
We thought this will probably never be a hit…it’s too detailed. It’s about Thomas Rhett. It’s not about everybody out there. This song is very specific to him, especially the part about adopting (his daughter) Willa from Uganda. We felt like we’re going to tell the truth…there’s no holding back. And the next thing you know it’s the title of the album, and it’s a #1 single. I watched 20,000 people in Wyoming the other night go nuts over that song. It doesn’t matter that those people didn’t quite live that story. They feel the truth from the artist.
BC: In 2019, you had your 31st #1 with Brantley Gilbert’s “What Happens in a Small Town.”
Akins: I love Brantley. I’ve been writing with Brantley since before he had a record deal. I love writing with kids that are on the verge. My publisher, Ben Vaughn (President & CEO of Warner/Chappell Nashville) said, “Hey, there’s this kid out of Georgia. He’s not there yet, but I think you should give us a shot. I think there’s something there.” I love doing that.
It was a bus tour with me, Brantley, and Brock Berryhill going out on a bus. He was opening for Kid Rock that weekend. Brock and this other guy had gotten a verse going, and Brantley loved it. We wrote the rest of it on the bus that day. I think Brantley may have sent it to Scott (Borchetta, CEO of Big Machine Records). This was so crazy. Brantley was going to record on Monday. We leave to go on the road on Thursday. Scott Borchetta basically said whatever you write this weekend is probably going to be the next single. I’ve never had a label head, especially as powerful as Scott, saying “You better write something great because we’re going to record it.”
Here’s the video of Dustin Lynch’s hit “Small Town Boy,” which
was co-written by Rhett Akins.
We wrote two or three songs. Every time we finished, we could record them on the bus. We had a Pro Tools rig and a computer out there. So Brantley was able to sing a vocal on the bus. Then he sent it to Scott and he flipped about it. He said, ‘Man, what if this is a duet?” Brantley said he hadn’t really thought about it, and I can’t really hear it. Thank goodness we were out there with Kid Rock because he had some female background singers. One of the singers came over to the bus and put down a female version of the second verse and part of the chorus. We sent that to Scott, and that was all it took (it became a duet hit for Gilbert & Lindsay Ell). That’s one of those stories that doesn’t happen that often.
BC: What’s the story behind Dustin Lynch’s “Small Town Boy?”
Akins: We were on tour with Luke Bryan in Knoxville, and it was flooding. It was mud up to your ankles. The show was pushed way back behind, and I didn’t think we were going to even get to play. We’re sitting on the bus wasting time, more than usual, because normally we’re getting ready to go out and play. Ben Hayslip, being the baseball coach that he is, never wastes any time. Ben said, “Come on, man. We’ve got to write something.” I wasn’t feeling like writing…it was kind of a dreary day. So, we get on the back on the bus and Kyle Fishman is with us and he has a Pro Tools rig out there with a microphone and computer. He plays this track, and I had had the title, “Small Town Boy,” but didn’t’ really know what it was. Me and Ben were scatting it out. I was so tired that I literally laid in my bunk and sang the vocal laying down. It wasn’t the best vocal, but I guess it was good enough to get the job done. What’s funny is they heard it over at Broken Bow Records. We sent it to Dustin, and Dustin really loved it. They cut it and turned it into the label. The label thought it was great, but they said, “We don’t know how to tell you this Dustin, but you sang it too good.” He said, “What do you mean?” They said, “We’ve fallen in love with the demo. You sang it perfect, and Rhett sang it so sloppy and lazy that we’ve gotten used to that version of the song.” Dustin literally went back into the studio and laid on the floor and sang the real record in a more don’t care, lackadaisical attitude, and it still sounds 10,000 times better than my vocal.
BC: You’ve been a successful songwriter for over two decades. How have you been able to stay hip and relevant with the music?
Akins: I’ve never been just a country fan. I like it all—rap, rock, blues, bluegrass, pop. My wife goes nuts when I drive because I literally can’t keep it on one station more than five seconds. I’m constantly flipping the channel trying to figure out which song I want to hear.
I don’t try to be modern. I’ve been a student and fan of music for so long, I guess it subconsciously stays modern because I’m constantly listening to new things. I think it’s a natural thing that comes out from being a fan of all genres.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].