Rhett McLaughlin has a deep-seated love of country music, growing up with a childhood adoration for the likes of Merle Haggard and George Jones. Some of this was upbringing; born in Georgia and raised in Buies Creek, North Carolina, before a California move prompted the blossoming of Mythical Entertainment in the early 2010s. Following years of viral comedic performances with best friend and Mythical co-founder Link Neal, McLaughlin is going solo to produce a roots project: James and the Shame. The moniker associates his middle name with an overarching “shame”—like in the story of his faith deconstruction that the first single “Believe Me” spotlights.
Coming up in a devout Christian home, McLaughlin eventually transitioned into a mindset of welcoming uncertainty. He abandoned a traditional perspective on faith that once saw him working as a full-time missionary. Much of James and the Shame’s debut album, Human Overboard, bases many of its themes on this background.
The album contains songs that feel like musical letters to loved ones, including the forward-driving roots of “Where We’re Going”. Collaborating with McLaughlin’s wife, Jessie, the two offer a hearty, romantic performance reminiscent of Americana this side of Drew & Ellie Holcomb. Elements brought into production like melodic pedal steel and steady percussion set the song into a contemporary country-like soundscape.
“I originally wrote this song as a Valentine’s gift to Jessie, and I get emotional every time I sing it,” McLaughlin tells PopMatters. “She didn’t know I’d be asking her to be a part of the track, but she was more than happy to jump on it. It helps that she’s a natural (and her degree is in music, specifically voice), so I knew she’d knock it out of the park. I can report that we didn’t get into any fights while working on it. So the romance is still intact.”
Regarding “Where We’re Going” and its inception, McLaughlin says, “I love how this one turned out. I actually wrote this one early in the process, before I even knew I was making an album. It was when I was simply writing what I was processing. At that stage, I wasn’t even thinking of this as a country song. It more or less represents what sounded good to me without any consideration of an audience beyond my wife. Once the idea of the album developed and I began collaborating with my producer, Derek Fuhrmann, the additional layers helped shape the song into what it is today.”
A music video directed by Ben Eck showcases moments throughout Rhett and Jessie’s life shared. They are juxtaposed against the artists performing in a studio setting together, trading loving glances in the quiet moments between verses. Eck is a long-time co-worker of McLaughlin’s, having worked with Mythical Entertainment for around a decade.
“We weren’t planning on working together on any aspect of the James and the Shame project since Ben is busy with plenty of other projects at Mythical,” says McLaughlin. “But then he approached me to let me know how excited he was about the record and wanted to help with anything he could. He’s always been an amazing collaborator with an incredible eye and ability to follow through on a vision. I wasn’t about to stand in the way of that. We knew we wanted to embrace the sincerity of the song, and I think the visuals do just that.”
Lastly, McLaughlin reflects on James and the Shame as a whole, reflecting on his single releases and his incoming LP. “‘Believe Me’ is the first track for a couple of reasons. The album is best enjoyed as a whole as if I’m bringing the listener along as I process my spiritual evolution. It’s sort of a primer—setting a thesis for the entire project—that being: regardless of where you’re at or the assumptions you bring to the broader conversation around spiritual deconstruction, this is my story. You don’t have to agree with me, and I’m not even asking you to. But please trust me that this is actually how I processed all this. Sonically, ‘Believe Me’ reaches into more historical aspects of country music, harkening back to the 1950s and 1960s, setting a musical foundation from which the rest of the album grows.”
“‘Where We’re Going’ represents the other end of the spectrum, being more modern and poppy, letting listeners know that I’m not just playing in one sandbox. As for where it falls in the larger arc of the album, there’s a selection of songs that are directed at people I love, ‘specially my parents, my kids, and with this one, of course, my wife. Because relationships are so deeply impacted by worldview changes, I knew that would be an important part of the project.”