Country music singer/songwriter Mitchell Tenpenny doesn’t hold back on his album Telling All My Secrets, his major label debut on Riser House/Columbia Nashville Records.
“When you’re younger, you’re afraid to sing a lot of things, but as you get older, that wall starts to fall down,” says Tenpenny. “I’m talking about things that people my age are dealing with on a daily basis, and the best thing is have that vulnerability.”
Tapped as the opener for Old Dominion’s “Make It Sweet Tour” this year, Tenpenny pulls no punches in writing 11 songs that are brutally honest. It paid off with the platinum-certified, number one single, “Drunk Me.” The song has surpassed more than 170 million on-demand streams. Currently, his new single “Alcohol You Later” is off to a good start, moving up the Top 50 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
In addition, the Tennessee native was honored with the Academy of Country Music’s New Male Vocalist of the Year nomination and was singled out as one of Pandora’s Artists to Watch in 2019. Prior to writing his own hits, Tenpenny had success as a songwriter, co-writing Granger Smith’s Top 10 hit “If the Boot Fits.” He’s toured with Maren Morris, Jake Owen, Brett Young, Cole Swindell, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Dustin Lynch.
In this new Q&A interview, Mitchell Tenpenny talks about letting down his guard for his fans, why his mom cried over a song he wrote, and discusses the story behind his first two hits.
BC: You had a big hit with “Drunk Me.” How did that song come together?
Mitchell Tenpenny: I just wanted to be honest with something that I’ve personally dealt with, where you heart is completely broken, and you tend to…or I did…try to drink them off your mind. It just didn’t work out. Every time I had another drink, it would just make me think about them more. When I came into the room that day, I had the idea of writing a song about quitting drinking for a minute to stand a chance of getting over somebody. Not like completely changing your lifestyle, but for a moment in time so that you weren’t relying on that. Now, you can have a clear mind to actually get over someone. We wrote that song, and the verse came out super quick all the way down to the verse/chorus. But the title wasn’t right yet…I couldn’t figure it out. My producer and co-writer [Jordan Schmidt along with Justin Wilson] on this song went into the kitchen to grab some coffee and came back out. He said, “Man, I might be crazy, but it might be as simple as Drunk Me can’t get over you.” Something about the simplicity of that made the entire song for me. Yes, that’s so simple. That is exactly what I have been trying to say. When you read the title, you think it’s just another drinking song, but it’s not. It’s something you have to dive into. The title kind of set it all up for me.
Here’s the video of Mitchell Tenpenny’s new single, “Alcohol
BC: I love the title of your latest single. How did “Alcohol You Later” [co-written by Michael Lotten and Sam Sumser) develop?
Tenpenny: I can’t take full credit for it—I just heard someone at a bar say something wrong. I thought he said, “Alcohol you later.” He was telling his buddy he’d call him later, but he was really Southern. I wrote that spmg four years ago. I Googled it, and I saw nothing (no other titles with that name). I thought, “How’s that not ever been a thing?” The next day I went into the studio with some buddies and we wrote that song.
It’s that song where you get a little liquid courage, and you start rummaging through your phone. You’ve told someone a million times, “It’s over; it aint’ gonna happen again.” And the next thing you know it’s happening again, and that’s kind of what that song was all about.
BC: Your first two singles from your new album, Telling All My Secrets, are drinking songs, but you dig into other topics with your other nine songs.
Tenpenny: We’ve got one called “Somebody’s Got Me,” that’s about finding that person you’re so in love with, that you know they have your back at all moments in every situation. That was one of those classic love songs. I played that on piano. I love having a piano song on the record. I also have one about losing my father to cancer, called “Walk Like Him.” My grandma and my mom always said I walk like him, and not just physically but spiritually and mentally how my dad walked. I think he was an amazing man and raised his boys right. I just wanted to pay homage to him on that record.
There’s another song that I really love playing called “I Get the Picture.” It’s a song about modern times. Everyone’s got their iPhones or their computer phones, and they can go on Instagram and Facebook and really do a lot of damage there. You break up with someone, and your ex goes and hooks up with someone else, and then they pose pictures about it because they know that you’re going to see it. It’s directly, “I Get the Picture,” using both phrases of it. I actually get the picture…I see it, I know what you’re trying to do. There’s another one called “Goner” that’s one of my favorite songs—it has a lot of influences of who I’ve listened to growing up, and it’s just a fun guitar song. I wanted the record to have a song for everybody. You could pick out your song, and you could insert your specific moments in life into those.
Here’s the video of Mitchell Tenpenny’s hit, “Drunk Me.”
BC: What’s it like putting yourself out there creatively, exposing yourself for the whole world to see?
Tenpenny: I’m a pretty shut off guy. My girlfriend will tell you I don’t talk a lot about how I’m feeling or anything, so I guess that’s my outlet. I think it’s healthy, and it’s also for me, as an artist, I want you to believe what I’m saying. And if I’m not telling you the truth I think it comes across real quick, and the country music fans especially can spot that, and that’s kind of what I’ve built my name on is being completely honest. I tell you exactly how it is, and that’s what I will always do. That comes out in my songwriting…I’m telling you exactly how I feel. I don’t censor myself a lot.
BC: Do you remember when you first started writing seriously?
Tenpenny: I was in a hardcore screaming band in high school and a pop/punk band in middle school. I was writing weird emo lyrics. The first time I wrote like a real song on my acoustic guitar, I remember playing it for my mom, and she just started crying. I think it’s because she was so happy she didn’t have to go to anymore hardcore rock shows (laughs). I guess I was around 13 or 14 when I started doing that.
I was still writing by myself. I didn’t start co-writing until I signed my publishing deal around six years ago, which is a whole different thing. I love co-writing with people.
BC: What’s the difference for you? Do you prefer sometimes to still write solo?
Tenpenny: It’s a balance. I like to write solo too, but I love co-writing because sometimes you get a little too deep in your own head when you’re writing by yourself. You might say something that no one else is going to understand, whereas in co-writing you can express that, and then the other writers can help you say the same thing but so that the world can understand it, not just your friends. Everyone keeps themselves accountable in there on how to write a song that can be more widely spread, and told so that the story can have a bigger impact.
BC: Was it difficult at first to write with others?
Here’s the video of Granger Smith’s hit, “If the Boot Fits,”
which was co-written by Mitchell Tenpenny.
Tenpenny: Sometimes you just don’t click in the room…there’s nothing personal about that. Some writers just write different. But for me, it’s always been pretty good. I’ve always been in teams my entire life, and I consider co-writing the same way. We’re all trying to achieve the same thing to get a great song out. What I love about songwriting is when you actually do it, everyone opens up and trusts, you get a great song at the end of the day.
BC: How does the songwriting process work for you?
Tenpenny: I have to have a great hook and story to tell. If I don’t know where you’re going, I don’t want to go with you. That’s what (legendary songwriter) Bobby Braddock told me a long time ago, and that’s always stuck with me. I need to have a basis, something to kind of drive towards, and at the end I pick up my guitar or piano and start getting melodies because melodies are so important. They’re extremely important in bringing out a lyric. You can have an amazing lyric, but if the melody isn’t right, you might not hear the lyric correct. It’s important for me to balance both, and that they match up so that the song hits really hits you as hard as it possibly can.
BC: Your grandmother, Donna Hilley (former CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, who died in 2012), was a major force in the music business. Were you able to learn things from her in the business, or was she just granny?
Tenpenny: She was grandmother, but I did learn things whether I knew it or not, like how she treated people—which is one of the most important things in this industry. I watched how she walked into a room even as powerful as she was, and treated everyone the same. I think that was something I didn’t know I was learning at the time. Looking on it now, it’s something I’ve taken on since I was a kid. That’s how I was raised, and that’s how she made sure that her grandchildren were raised because no matter how successful or great thing happens to you, remember where you came from. She was just a little Alabama girl who worked her way up from receptionist to president, and that was very inspiring, especially for a woman in that time. That just didn’t happen. She didn’t take no for an answer. I was very lucky to grow up with that kind of inspiration and guidance.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].