Mitchell Tenpenny is one of those rare musicians who is OK with his songs being bigger than his name.
That’s how he was raised growing up with his grandmother, Donna Hilley, a prominent figure in Music Row’s publishing world. Before she passed in 2005, she helped facilitate the careers of Nashville’s great tunesmiths, including Bobby Braddock, Taylor Swift and others, giving Tenpenny a front-row seat at the sacrifice music people encounter in their rise to prominence.
“Even though my grandmother was in publishing, doors didn’t always open for me,” Tenpenny told CMT.com. “I was very blessed to see people struggle for years before they finally get their break. I think that helped me with every, ‘No,’ I got. I’ve gotten a million of them, and I still get them today. When you finally get a yes it just gives you all the hope you need.”
One of the first artists to believe in Tenpenny and help him break through was Granger Smith, who had success with one of Tenpenny’s originals, “If the Boot Fits.”
“It changed my life because it opened so many doors for me to write more in the community,” Tenpenny said. “But also, he took me out on the road first and let me open for him acoustically. I got to meet his fans and built a foundation starting from nowhere. He kept giving me that opportunity.”
After a lifetime of writing songs (He initially started writing songs at age 12.), Tenpenny had more than 500 originals to choose from for his major-label debut, Telling All My Secrets. His goal was to create a body of work where country people could recognize themselves in every song.
“For me personally, I’m always searching for my song on a record I’m listening to,” Tenpenny said. “I wanted to make sure we had love, heartbreak, drinking, partying, even losing somebody, something that someone could attach themselves to. We whittled it down to 11 songs I felt like were me and where I’m at now.”
Telling All My Secrets touches on perennial country themes like love and loss in daring ways. The title song has soulful, ‘90s country nostalgia as Tenpenny sings about a man who finally finds a love who accepts him for who he is. He says the hardest lyrics to write was the closing song, “Walk Like Him,” about losing his father who died from cancer three years ago.
“My mom and grandma used to say I walk like him with my feet at 10 and two,” Tenpenny recalled. “When you lose somebody, it takes a little time for it to hit you, at least it did for me. I just went into, ‘I gotta take care of my family,’ mode.
“I was driving one night late after a gig, and my band was asleep in the back of the van. I just broke down. That’s where it hit me was just on the road. I guess there was something about that loneliness. That title came to me, and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to write it. I just don’t know when.’ When it came time for this record, I just did it. It was the most I had ever teared up in a write.”
And Tenpenny’s good for songs about drinking. He’s having a moment with his breakout song, “Drunk Me.” And his next single, the anthemic “Alcohol You Later,” is a play-on-words about drinking someone’s memory away.
“The fans chose this one,” Tenpenny says of “Alcohol You Later.” “It’s one of those things where people are singing back and they really enjoy it. It’s just a fun hook. I think everyone’s been there in their own part, too, where you get your heart broken, you’ve got to drink them off your mind and then you’re sitting there texting them when you said you never would.”
Tenpenny is in the middle of the Telling All My Secrets Album Release tour. The run continues Friday (Dec. 20) in Grand Rapids, Mich.