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Makin’ Tracks: Thomas Rhett Makes Space in His Life (And Career) for ‘Angels’

todayFebruary 15, 2023

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The lives of country artists’ spouses can be challenging — their partners spend long periods of time on the road, often chew up their home time with business meetings and songwriting appointments, and get interrupted periodically by strangers when the couple is out in public.

So it’s telling that Lauren Akins, who celebrated her 10th anniversary with Thomas Rhett last October, sweetly defines herself by that relationship in the profile on her Twitter page: “Blessed to be married to my best friend.”

Rhett clearly remains enamored of his wife, documenting their lives together through much of his material, including “Life Changes,” “Look What God Gave Her” and “Star of the Show.” Part of that appreciation is his recognition of the abnormal scenario she freely embraces.

“Anyone married to someone in the spotlight, it takes a very special human being,” he says. “The amount of days I’ve been gone, the amount of times I’ve let work overtake my family life, the amount of times I’ve said yes to stuff that I probably should have said no to — and [she was] there with me the whole way.”

His newest single — “Angels (Don’t Always Have Wings),” which Valory released to country radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 23 — reflects both his gratitude for her and some degree of guilt for his job’s infringements, though Rhett didn’t necessarily intend to be the voice delivering that message.

“Angels” emerged from a co-writing appointment with Teddy Swims, a multigenre singer-songwriter who made Rhett a featured artist on his rhythmic 2021 track “Broke.” “Teddy Swims is like if Chris Stapleton started an R&B band,” Rhett says. “That’s what he sounds like — absolutely insane.”

Rhett aimed to write something that Swims might not typically record: a “frickin’ country ballad that the chorus is just at the tip top of his range,” says Rhett. “Selfishly, I wanted to hear Teddy singing something like that.”

The night before the session, Rhett read a book that raised the possibility of meeting an angel who presents in the physical world as a human being. From that idea, he drifted to the phrase “Angels (Don’t Always Have Wings)” and decided the concept applied to his wife. He introduced that idea during his Nashville writing date with Swims, Josh Thompson (“I’ll Name the Dogs,” “Ain’t Always the Cowboy”) and songwriter-producer Julian Bunetta (“Craving You,” “Beer Can’t Fix”). Everyone bought into it, with Rhett leading the charge.

“You have to stand around with, like, trash cans to pick up all the stuff leaking out of him,” Bunetta says. “You can’t pick it up fast enough. He’s one of the most prolific writers I have ever been around.”

They wrote “Angels” in a waltz time signature, placing the song’s female subject on a pedestal while the singer, self-described as a “mess of a man,” takes responsibility for his own failures and a “selfish heart.” It is, agree Rhett and Bunetta, an exaggeration of Rhett’s character, though Rhett expected Swims to sing it in the end anyway.

“It’s not like every movie that Robert De Niro is in, he had to live,” Bunetta reasons. “The greatest artists have always been able to interpret the song the way it needs to be interpreted. Whether or not they lived that is sort of beside the point.”

They fashioned “Angels” with the music and lyrics working in tandem to wring maximum emotion out of the experience. It starts humbly and conversationally in its opening verses, rising in the chorus to a higher melodic plain. In the process, it uses a fairly small number of words, allowing the phrases — and the song’s heart — to unfold slowly.

“The use of space in songs is good,” Bunetta notes. “Sometimes space says what needs to be said.”
The mix of sweet adulation and self-abasement proved dramatic, reaching the climactic, semi-spiritual line in the narrative just before the chorus’ end: “I don’t know why you were patient and wasted good savin’ on me.” The foursome felt a bridge was needed to complete it, and they wrestled with numerous ideas before Thompson asserted himself, using “wings” as both the last word in the chorus and the first word in the bridge.

“He is the least-vocal songwriter that I write with — and by least vocal, I mean the person that is not just shouting out every melody and lyric that comes to his brain,” Rhett says. “I think he kind of allows the write to happen. He just kind of tucks away in a corner with his laptop that’s from 2001 because he’s too old school to upgrade. We got stuck; he just spat out that bridge. And we were just like, ‘That’s what it was supposed to be the whole time.’”

Swims sang over a drum loop and acoustic guitar for the Bunetta-produced demo, but by the next morning, Rhett was already having second thoughts about who should sing it. He checked in with Swims periodically to gauge what was happening with “Angels,” and after several months, got Swims’ permission to keep it for himself. Rhett recorded it with producer Dann Huff (Kane Brown, Brantley Gilbert), who honored the song’s spacious needs.

Rhett, meanwhile, needed private space for his vocal. The chorus tested his falsetto in a way that he had never quite encountered before in the studio, and he wasn’t certain he could capture the song’s vulnerability in front of a producer and engineer. So he holed up in his home studio and sang 60 or 70 takes, which would later be compiled into one vocal.

“I really just wanted to lock myself in that emotion alone and see what would come out,” he says. “The intricacies of my voice breaking up or the falsetto not being perfect — that’s the realness of it.”

After Rhett’s album Where We Started arrived April 1, 2022, his manager, G Major Management founder Virginia Davis, saw particularly strong fan reaction to “Angels,” and she encouraged Bunetta to explore a remix. He redid the bass and drums, and added a piano with a tremolo effect in the opening bars. “I thought that the intro, if we’re going to radio with this song, needed some ear candy to perk your ear up,” says Bunetta.

“Angels” debuted at No. 51 on the Feb. 11 Country Airplay chart and moves to No. 32 in its second week. The song also continues to generate direct messages on social media as fans adopt a song Rhett wrote about his wife as their own.

“It was really cool,” he says, “to watch something so personal resonate on such a large scale with people from different walks of life.”

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