Meet Mitchell Tenpenny — a man of soul, swagger and stories of a Nashville gone by.
Tenpenny is a rarity among artists in town in that he’s a native Nashvillian, born and bred, and he’s also got the music industry in his blood. In his youth, he spent many days in the office of his grandmother, the late Donna Hilley, a music publishing legend who was president of Sony/ATV Publishing.
It was there that Tenpenny discovered his first love: songwriting.
“I remember the day I wanted to be a songwriter,” he told CMT.com. “I was in my grandmother’s office and I was about 8 or 9 years old, and Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman were there. I didn’t at the time realize they were songwriters. I thought my grandma was the head of a label, not a publishing company. I didn’t know what she did. I was a kid.
“But I loved ’He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ and she said to me, ’Hey, these are the two guys that wrote that song.’ At the time, I just assumed all artists wrong their songs. But it just clicked for me, because those guys were cool. You know Bobby, he’s just so low key, and I thought that was just so neat. I wanted to be that. I wanted to be that guy behind the scenes writing the songs.”
And he did become that guy. Even now that he’s stepping into the spotlight as an artist, Tenpenny still has the heart of a songwriter — one full of notes, memories, lyrical ideas and techniques all his own, inspired by the beauty and beautiful mess around him in his everyday life.
That’s exactly what you hear on his debut EP Linden Ave., a collection of real moments and memories brought to life in Tenpenny’s own voice, a mix of soul, Southern rock rasp, country, pop and blues. Growing up, Tenpenny was exposed to just about everything thanks to the power of television and the radio, in addition to his exposure to the great Nashville songwriters. He credits everyone from the Oak Ridge Boys to R. Kelly to the church for influencing his sound.
“I loved Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 and Motown, and that is where I think a lot of my soul influence comes from,” he said. “And church. I sang in church growing up and those were my first concerts I ever played, playing guitar in the corner at church services and finally getting a chance to sing. And I grew up with pop and country, and there’s some kind of balance there.”
It’s a balance heavy in the new generation of country, much to the chagrin of some but to the delight of so many others. And as the genre opens up more, so do more minds. For Tenpenny, it’s all about just being authentic.
“I’m not Hank. I’m not Willie. I’m not Merle,” he admits. “And I’m not going to try to be them. They’ve already done it, so why would you want to try and be that? I just want to give you something pleasing to your ear and is hopefully something you can relate to.”
And he plans on keeping it country.
“I did grow up in the South, and we’re gonna talk about all that. I mean, you’re not gonna talk about hunting and fishing in a pop song. It’s like Sam Hunt: Sam’s pop, but his lyrics are country and there’s a blend there.”
And it’s working for Tenpenny. Linden Ave. is a blend of country, pop and soul with even a few hip-hop beats as an undercurrent in a few places, but it’s lyrics are undeniably country. And most importantly for Tenpenny, it’s just fun to listen to.
Among the highlights of the project that easily flows from top to bottom are songs like “Laid Back” and “Mixed Drinks,” a tune written for a girl nursing a heartbreak.
“We were sitting at the bar, and we saw a girl just sitting in the corner by herself, just drinking and drinking and looking at her phone and slamming it down,” he recalled. “That could only mean one thing. We wanted to give you a song that gave you permission to drink a little on a heartbreak when everyone’s like, ’No, you shouldn’t go do that.’ But we are. We’re gonna go to the bar and drink too much that night. It’s OK. I just want to be that person that’s real, that says it like it is. I don’t want to sugarcoat it.”
Which he definitely doesn’t do in “Bitches,” a singalong which at first glance definitely raises some eyebrows. But Tenpenny says the only target of the song is the cheaters of the world — guys and girls alike.
But still, it was a hard sell at first, even to Tenpenny himself, and the decision to release it didn’t come without reservations for everyone.
“It took a lot of convincing with the team, and it took a lot of people believing in it and seeing people sing it back,” he admits. “Seeing women sing it back, that was big for us to be able to all agree that maybe we could do this and do something different. It is what it is, and it is not about calling women bitches. It’s about cheaters, and everyone knows that emotion. When you get your heart broken … that’s what happens.”
And it’s a true story, by the way. At the time it was written, two friends had just been cheated on. Tenpenny says he just started humming the melody and the words — “I don’t deal with bitches no more” — just fell out.
“My buddy said, ’No one will cut that!’ I said, ’Man, I’ll cut that!'”
Pretty soon, what started out as a just-for-fun, kiss-off song became a widely circulating demo, with Tenpenny receiving videos of people singing it in their car.
“I understood that emotion, and I felt like women would understand that emotion, too, from being cheated on by guys. And they can scream it, too. I want it to be an anthem. Fill in the blank on whatever you want to call it.
“We kept it light-hearted and fun, because it’s not supposed to be so serious. It supposed to be something that when you are having a hard time like that, you can crank it up and just forget about it for a moment.”
For Tenpenny, giving the fans an emotional release it what it’s all about. Road life is the best life for him, because he gets to see his music go to work.
“It’s my favorite thing in the world is to be out on the road with my band and my best friends,” he said. “That’s what started it all — playing in bands. I love playing with my friends onstage. That’s where our stuff translates best. I will lose my voice by the end of the show and we’ll stay out there for three hours after just meeting everybody because it means the world to see people come up. That’s why we do it.”
But it all begins with the songs, and Tenpenny strives to continue to grow as a songwriter, always thinking of his grandmother’s tireless support of Nashville’s music community and the feeling of family among writers.
That’s a legacy Tenpenny is keen on seeing through to this current generation. Even as fellow songwriters and artist friends like Devin Dawson make their way up the ladder and charts, Tenpenny says the camaraderie between them all is the most important to cherish. After all, that’s what made Nashville so great in his eyes as a young boy.
“We are all competing, but at the end of the day, those are my best friends,” he said. “I remember that Nashville. It wasn’t competition, and it was awesome and then it turned into this really cliquey, really political thing really fast, and I’m ready for it to be done.
“My group of friends, we’re all coming up together, and every time someone gets a single — you know, Devin, Paul DiGiovanni — we’re all in a group chat and we celebrate each other.”
He admits the atmosphere is a combination of support and friendly competition.
“We’re obviously competing,” he said. “I would love to have that single, but that’s my boy. And if my boy gets it, then that helps us all. And that’s the best thing in the world.”
And that’s a spirit and cause that would make definitely make his grandmother proud.