Mitchell Tenpenny has succeeded in many things in life. But, impressively, the thing he's wanted most: to be a star as a singer and songwriter in his hometown of Nashville, TN -- is the one thing that he's currently succeeding at the most to date.
Before releasing music like his latest EP Midtown Diaries (out September 10), the 32-year old artist was an aspiring linebacker roaming the football gridiron at Middle Tennessee State University, a rock band member playing for the musty, sweat-drenched glory of dive bar cheeseburgers and pitchers of beer at the end of the night.
However, as Tenpenny notes to CMT, "writing songs, building a catalog, and dreaming of getting a publishing deal," changed his perspective from aspiring to running out on the field on an NFL Sunday to say, sitting at the end of a bar with a good friend and developing the story for a hit country single.
"Songwriting is my first love. I started songwriting in college with my friend Brad Clawson [who has gone on to have his own successful Nashville songwriting career]," he says. "It's the greatest job in the world. I can stay home, hang out, and get mailbox money from writing songs with and for superstar artists -- that's the life!"
And yes, alongside his previous songwriting credits for artists including Granger Smith, there's his current -- and previously alluded to -- hit collaboration with Chris Young, "At The End of the Bar." Though the song was premiered in front of tens of thousands of people in Nashville during Independence Day Weekend, its humble roots also offer something that speaks to the honest simplicity yielding deeply connective lyricism that has keyed Tenpenny's success.
"There was a snowpocalypse in Nashville, so I called Chris Young -- who has been a great friend to me over the years -- and we agreed, since we were both bored and had four-wheel drive cars, that we should brave the snow to have a co-write," the "Alcohol You Later" vocalist recalls to CMT. "We're sitting in the studio with [Grammy-winning songwriter Chris DeStefano], and Chris says, 'you should've seen Mitchell and me at the end of the bar a few days ago, just ripping it up and b***hing about everything!' I stopped Chris and said, 'Dude. You just said the name of the song. Think about all of the things that start at the end of a bar. Friendships, love, heartbreak, everything.'"
However, not every songwriting experience has been that simple for Tenpenny. In fact, Midtown Diaries chronicles what is likely the most tumultuous three years of his life. "In the past three years, I've signed a record deal, had a hit song [2018 platinum-seller "Drunk Me"], survived a breakup, met the love of my life, been on the road, and missed my family and friends," he offers. Yet, he feels the impact of his life upon his craft is noticeable. "I think after all of that happened so fast, that I've matured. Now, I have more to say than I ever have. Plus, I've learned -- through songwriting and the vulnerability through life lessons those experiences taught me -- how to tell stories better."
Thus, Midtown Diaries reflects what Tenpenny considers "the most authentic and true-to-myself writing I've done to date." Songs like "Truth About You" note the first sign of veteran awareness that notes something past a certain "aw shucks" acknowledgment that he's definitely attempting to become a master craftsman-as-country artist. Aside from his well-regarded and July-released track, he says, "I wrote lyrics like 'shots of Jack and shoulder pads don't give you superpowers' on this EP. Writing things like that made me fight with myself because I'm finally writing songs not for who I think my fans are sometimes but for who I know who they are for certain."
Related to the previous point, he offers notes about his fan demographics that show that he's also paying closer, more nuanced attention to his music. "For instance, the rural fans in the small towns will come out and want to know more about who I was and am as a person. So they care about that night I had my first shot of Jack Daniels, or the first time I wore shoulder pads. So these songs are a little deeper, because they're as much for country radio and 18-to-40-year old women as they are for the buff, tough motorcycle dudes in small towns in Oregon, Montana, or the mountains of the Carolinas that I am surprised to see know every single word of songs like [previously released Midtown Diaries EP single] 'Bucket List.'"
Moreover, as Tenpenny deeply exhales into making a well-crafted, long, and thoughtful reply, he says, "the greatest feeling about this EP is that these songs allow my music to achieve the bigger goals that I want my music to reach. People need to be able to find their stories in my songs. So there are love songs, breakup songs, fun songs, life songs, and songs about loss on this EP. But, consistently, [I've strived] to create an EP where you believe every word that's coming out of my mouth. I want to tell the truth."
To wit, he laughs and adds, "It's not all serious, though. There are songs like 'She Hates Me Too' which talks about how one of my friends and I dated the same girl -- neither of us ended up with her in the end -- and we still see her dating [other] guys around town and making them fall for her, too. We were sitting having a drink at a bar once, and the conversation we had about this fact sparked a fun idea in me that became the song. The fact that our conversation wasn't awkward, [nor were we trying to] pump each other up, intrigued me."
"I'm as humbled as I am inspired by what I'm doing, and it's working and growing," says Tenpenny, both reflecting on the past and curiously excited for the future. "I've had to stop being stubborn about having so many people embracing my music. I'm even embracing social media and technology more. These days, you have to stay a swipe ahead of your fans to keep them. But, whether it's at a live show, streaming, or Tik Tok especially, we're still getting people to believe in my art the best way, one fan at a time."