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The Songs That Changed My Life: Mitchell Tenpenny

By Alison Bonaguro

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On the verge of his ambitious new 20-track studio album, with his name on each and every one of those 20 tracks, Mitchell Tenpenny took Holler on a tour of his life and the songs that led him to This Is The Heavy. His follow-up album to his 2018 debut Telling All My Secrets is everything fans have come to love about Tenpenny. And it’s aptly named, because of the heaviness woven throughout the song stack.

It’s country, but with elements of heavy drums and heavy guitars. It has story songs, but with lyrics that have as much edge as they do sentiment. And it takes influences from every single genre that Tenpenny has immersed himself in in his 33 years, from emo and punk and pop to rock and gospel and country.

The song ‘Happy and I Hate It’ is one of the album’s best examples of that. The tempo is infectiously pop, almost punk, but the message is undeniably country: he hates seeing his ex happy. “When I can connect those dots, and have a song that does those things in a way nobody’s done before, that’s what I love,” Tenpenny told Holler. It’s that dedication to the craftsmanship and artistry of songwriting that has him standing tall with this new album. And the songwriters he assembled to work with on these songs are as dedicated as he is, giving the album’s credits a modern-era who’s-who-in-Nashville feel: Zach Kale, Josh Kear, Jordan Schmidt, Ashley Gorley, Matt Rogers, Devin Dawson, Thomas Archer, Brad Clawson, Rodney Clawson, Kyle Fishman, Seth Ennis, Chris DeStefano, Laura Veltz, Jesse Frasure and many more like-minded hitmakers.

“I’m a songwriter first, but the ‘Mitchell Tenpenny’ people are getting to know now just happened. And I’m honored, and I ran with it. But I always want the songs I’m cutting to be the songs I wrote,” he said. “That’s really the only way for me to make you believe what I’m saying, and allows me to say whatever I want.

“I have no limits when I’m writing for myself, and I love that challenge and that freedom.”

Earlier hits ‘Drunk Me’ and ‘Alcohol You Later’ – and his latest chart topper ‘Truth About You’ – have established a formula that works for Tenpenny. And while these new songs showcase how his talent has evolved, his intention was not to veer off course. “I’m not one to ever leave the fans behind. Because I loved when bands stuck to what made me fall in love with them. That’s important to me. I never want to venture off too far from what first got me started.”

And on that note, Holler asked Mitchell to go back a ways to the actual songs that got him started. The tunes that he considers the most pivotal ones, and drove him to make music with his own stamp on it. Here are his five picks.

Michael Jackson - 'Man in the Mirror'

This song was the first song I can think of that really took me on a ride. What a melody. What a lyric. I just wanted to be Michael Jackson growing up. His voice, his dance moves, all of it. That was what I wanted to do. I remember singing this one at the top of my lungs in my mom’s gold Ford Taurus when I was about seven years old. Those little bells in the intro, the finger snaps, the production. There was just something so special about all of those elements. It made me start singing out loud for the first time. Songs like that, nostalgic ones, have a way of bringing you right back to those moments. And those memories are so vivid for me.

Gaither Vocal Band - 'Mary, Did You Know?'

This song was the first one I ever performed in front of an audience. It was in church with my uncle. I was probably about ten years old, and we did it at a Christmas special. He really pushed me to be on stage. So it was the first time I had to learn a song, practice it, rehearse it, and then perform it in front of people. That one song made me want to perform forever. My uncle used to be in the New York City opera, and in the off season he’d come to Nashville in the summers. He was the cool uncle, so he inspired me and my brother to be creative and challenged us to learn music. That performance – so out of my comfort zone – at the Park Avenue Baptist Church, with him on the piano and me in front of the mic was amazing. I’ll never forget that night and that song and how I felt once it was over.

Relient K - 'Sadie Hawkins Dance'

Relient K was like a pop punk Christian rock band. This song was about high school, and going to “a Sadie Hawkins dance in my khaki pants.” It was so silly but it was so cool. I think because it was something I’d never heard growing up: they just said whatever they wanted to. And it’s why I started a band in 7th grade. This was the first song we learned, and then it became the first song I ever performed with a bass player, drummer and two guitar players. It was my buddy’s 13th birthday, so he invited everyone to his house for his birthday so we could play. We practiced, practiced, practiced, and practiced until we had it down. We had guitar tabs, because none of us knew how to read music. And we’d bought the CD at FYE so we could listen to it and read the liner notes to get the lyrics right. We just learned by ear. We sucked forever, until we got it right. That’s when I knew this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Then years later, I actually met the lead singer Matt Thiessen sitting at the bar at Red Door in Nashville and I asked him what some of those lyrics really meant.

The 1975 - 'Chocolate'

After I’d been doing my own stuff in bands and on my own for a while, out of nowhere there’s this new English pop band called The 1975. This song ‘Chocolate’ just changed my soul. It was cool in every way that a song could be cool. The melody, the guitar, the arpeggio rhythms. I was at a point where I was starting to get a little bit jaded about music, and then this song comes along and changes the game. You can even hear their accents in the music, and that was cool to me, too. It was about how their car smells like chocolate, and running from the cops because of that. But when they were saying “chocolate,” they really meant weed. So it was a little taboo, but I think that’s when I started getting more into lyrics. For a long time, I literally thought it was about chocolate. But I dug a little deeper into message threads online and found out what it was actually about. That made it even cooler.

Brooks & Dunn - 'Red Dirt Road'

This song changed my life, because of that riff, that melody, that story. And more than that, it made me want to play guitar. A real guitar. I stayed up all night long trying to learn that riff, and I couldn’t wait to get to school the next day to show my buddies. When it comes together for me like that, that’s the best.That first real guitar was a Gibson Les Paul classic. I still have it. My mom and dad had to put payments on it to give it to me one Christmas. It’s the most meaningful thing I have in my studio. It’s priceless to me, because it meant that my parents had faith in me. They thought I could do it, and that’s all I needed to know as a kid. And the lyrics were so cinematic for me, with the “shackled-up GTO, where I drank my first beer, where I found Jesus, and where I’d sneak out in the middle of the night to throw rocks at her bedroom window”. Still when I hear it, it’s like I can see the movie in my head, and to me that’s what I consider a great song.

The album, This Is The Heavy, is released on September 16. Mitchell Tenpenny finishes up with Luke Bryan on his Raised Up Right Tour in October before his own This Is The Heavy tour begins on January.