From early on, Thomas Rhett knew he could, as he famously sang in his multiplatinum hit, die a happy man.
But he needed to tell the whole world. He was three years into his marriage to Lauren Akins—and some two decades into a love story that started when they met in the first grade—when he had the realization while working on his second studio album, Tangled Up.
"I remember going out and my wife just really encouraging me to write. She's always wanted me to write like a 'Just to See You Smile' by Tim McGraw," he shared with The Boot in 2016. "I looked back and was like, 'I've never just written a song about my wife or for my wife.'"
So he sat down with two cowriters and scribbled out the lyrics:
"If I never get to see the Northern lights / Or if I never get to see the Eiffel Tower at night / Oh if all I got is your hand in my hand / Baby I could die a happy man"
The most-played country tune for six straight weeks, the 2015 track went platinum many times over, earning the musician (born Thomas Rhett Akins) his two Academy of Country Music Awards, a CMA and a Grammy nod.
And—as he and his bride, 30, mark their eighth wedding anniversary today—his personal life is doing even better. Their romance is not the Instagram-filtered picture of perfection that reduces their social media followers to puddles of jealousy with each snapshot of their family of five.
It's something so much more real and far, far better.
"We don't have a perfect marriage," Akins explained to E! News, discussing her motivation for laying everything out in her August memoir Live in Love: Growing Together Through Life's Changes. "I love our marriage and I love being married to him. We have a really really sweet life together, but we fight just like every other couple does. We have struggles just like every other couple does...It's almost freeing for me to be able to share that side of things so people can see that having a healthy relationship is extremely attainable, it's just not going to look just like everybody else's."
For the 30-year-old musician and his philanthropist bride, who sits on the board of children's charity Love One International, theirs has involved fertility struggles, a grueling adoption and the type of hard conversations that you might imagine come with being married to an international country music sensation.
And the parents to Willa Gray, 4, Ada James, 3, and 8-month-old Lennon Love credit their rock-solid bond to some well-placed counseling and a great deal of introspection.
Having struggled at times with feeling like a side act in Rhett's life, "When I really started to pursue my passions was when we clicked even more as a couple," Akins explained to E! News. "We were both more whole and happy and able to be better together. Just seeing that change has just really made both of us realize how important it is for us to still be our independent selves and to make sure to take care of ourselves."
And perhaps there's just a bit of divine intervention in there as well.
You see, the Georgia natives first met as first graders, became close as church camp-going middle schoolers and even took a stab at romance in high school. "We dated once when we were 15, and it didn't work out," Rhett told Taste of Country just ahead of their 2012 vows. "We dated for like six months."
The romance flamed out during a spring break in Key West ("His jealousy and possessiveness kept showing itself again and again," she explained in her book), and yet, as Rhett shared in that 2012 interview, "We remained best friends even after we broke up. We both dated other people for like five years."
In fact, they came thisclose to marrying other people in their early twenties until her father intervened. "The night of her sister's graduation party, we were buddies and I was there. I'd loved that girl since high school, and I told her father how I felt," he recalled in a 2019 interview with HITS Daily Double. "He said, 'If you don't tell her, I'm going to.'"
His next move was "a total Ryan Gosling moment," he told the outlet. "I said to her, 'I just want to kiss you one time. If you don't feel anything, we can go back to being friends.'" Spoiler alert: He got the girl, Akins writing in her book, "That one moment, that one kiss on my parents' front porch, changed everything."
Because there he was, some six months later, making another bold move. "Me and Lauren are big on drinking wine and signing the bottles with a silver sharpie," he explained to Taste of Country. So one night, just ahead of Christmas, he gathered both of their families in a private room at her favorite Nashville spot, Giovanni's. "There was a bottle of wine sitting there. I pulled out a sharpie and put 'Marry me' on the bottle."
Her response: "Well, duh, yes," written in the same silver marker.
Married 10 months later at the tender age of 22, they received some push-back. "Everybody was telling us not to," he recalled to People, "but we just fell in love at a young age."
And that much was evident at their vows just outside Nashville. "When I saw them stare at each other the entire 20 minutes they were saying their vows, it's like these two people are meant to be together," his father, fellow country singer Rhett Akins, told Country Weekly. "They are beyond in love. Everybody there that had doubted or wondered if they were too young, all the doubts are gone now."
They vowed to maintain strong communication (speaking at least three times a day when he's on the road) and unquestionable respect, Rhett making it a point not to drape himself all over female video costars because "it's just not really what I do." And then they jetted off to Oahu for a 10-day honeymoon that was, Akins wrote, "more romantic than I'd even dreamed."
Three years later, they were back in that paradise to shoot the video for "Die a Happy Man", letting the world in on their bliss. "I really did just wake up one day and was like, 'I have yet to write a song about her,'" he told People. "That's just one of those cheesy things you do for your girlfriend when you're 16, but I decided to do it when I was 25."
Really, there was just one piece missing.
Struggling to conceive, they were inspired to dive into the adoption process after Akins fell hard for then-18-month-old Willa during a 2016 trip to Uganda with charity 147 Million Orphans. Looking at a photo of Akins cuddling the toddler, "Lauren had this amazing glow about her and it just felt like she was already our daughter in a weird way," he told People. "I just blurted out, 'We should bring her home.'"
They did the following May after months of red tape, several visits that saw them leave empty handed—and one surprise pregnancy. By August they were welcoming Baby Akins No. 2 and navigating their suddenly busy household.
"She was jealous at first I think," Rhett noted to E! News at the 2018 Grammys of his eldest daughter Willa. "But it's so fun to watch her, she loves our little Ada so much and it's been amazing watching her be a great big sister to her."
For Mom and Dad, their Nashville home abuzz with activity, "tired but we're happy" became the new mantra, as Akins put it to People.
That was, of course, only part of the story, Akins understandably struggling to juggle a newborn, a toddler and a husband whose suddenly skyrocketing career kept him away for long stretches.
"It's so hard to explain, but I started feeling like I just missed him," she detailed in her book. "I felt estranged from my husband. Even when he was in the same room with us." The separation felt even more acute when he was on the road, one of Akins' lowest moments coming when Ava was just four weeks old. Sitting, covered in newborn spit-up, she watched her dapper groom help crown a winner at the Miss America pageant and it struck her just how far she'd strayed from the cozy family life she had imagined for herself.
"Everybody's out there looking at life through the pictures in People freaking magazine, and thinking we're this family fairy tale," she shared. "But nobody tells you about this part of the story."
So she decided to do it herself.
Chronicling their ups and downs in Live in Love, she revealed their tougher times, including the particularly brutal fight they had as she began to wonder if their family was just "Something Thomas Rhett did on the side."
Two straight days of emergency marriage counseling led to a four-day retreat, she shared, where they both left feeling as if they'd just gained a whole new set of tools. "I learned to talk to her instead of channeling all my energy into work," Rhett explained, "and she learned to answer me rather than get mad at me."
Though tiffs are inevitable, the pair have settled into a partnership so solid that the idea of adding to their family is more of a when than an if. And while so many other celebrity couples are struggling in quarantine, they're not mad about all of the together time.
"Honestly it's been such a blessing in disguise this whole year," Rhett explained at September's ACM Awards. "I would say the first 30, 40 days into quarantine, I was kind of losing my mind going, 'I need to play a show. I need to write a song. I need to do something.' And then one day my wife looked at me and she said, 'Honey, you're not going to play a show this year. You just need to let it be, and relax and be with our family."
That this stretch of uninterrupted time came after they welcomed third daughter Lennon in February felt particularly fortuitous, she told E! News: "It was like we were a new family of five and we've got this newborn at home and having him here has been so amazing."
And for Rhett picking up bedtime duty has been every bit as rewarding as playing to a sold-out crowd.
"This is the most nights in a row I've ever gotten to put them to bed and wake up with them," he noted after accepting Entertainer of the Year honors at the 2020 ACMs. "We've actually been on a road trip the last few weeks together, and it's been absolutely amazing just to get to watch them grow up, you know? So as crazy and as weird as this year has been, that is definitely a silver lining, just getting to watch my kids grow and getting to be intentional with my wife. And then tonight is just such a crazy cherry on top."
Sounds like life couldn't be any sweeter.
(Originally published March 30, 2020, at 3 a.m. PT)