Mitchell Tenpenny Talks Doubling Down on Truth-Telling Songwriting With ‘Midtown Diaries’ EP

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On Oct. 10, Nashville native Mitchell Tenpenny will fulfill a lifelong dream when he steps onstage at the Ryman Auditorium, for a sold-out show at the revered venue as part of his To Us It Did tour.

“I’ve been to so many shows there, and just kind of grew up going there. So to get to headline there is crazy to me, especially with it being in my hometown,” he tells Billboard. “My whole family is going to be there, all my friends. It’s one of those full-circle moments. My brother is also my bass player, so my mom will have both of her boys on that stage.”

For Tenpenny, it’s also filling a lifelong dream of performing his own songs in one of country music’s most hallowed spaces — and the Riser House/Columbia Nashville artist has plenty in his arsenal. As with his 2018 debut album Telling All My Secrets, Mitchell co-wrote every song on his new eight-track EP, Midtown Diaries, out Friday (Sept. 10). He also co-produced the EP with Jordan M. Schmidt.

“I love writing music more than anything in this world,” says Tenpenny, who is signed with Riser House and Sony ATV for admin, and with WME for booking.

Writing and performing his own music is a dream Tenpenny has been chasing since his teens, before becoming college roommates at Middle Tennessee State University with fellow songwriter Brad Clawson (son of hit country music writer Rodney Clawson). The two began playing clubs and writing songs, and Tenpenny traded his time as a drummer and self-professed “lead screamer” for local metal bands for the pursuit of a career in country music.

“I grew up on country music — but I also love metal and rock as well,” he explains. “It was the whole Warped Tour scene, and that bit of teenage angst you’ve got to get out — bands like Underoath and As I Lay Dying. We loved that scene. Back then they didn’t have skinny jeans unless you bought like Diesels and I couldn’t afford them, so we had to go steal our sister’s or aunt’s jeans to look cool.

“We were essentially copying the style Ronnie Dunn’s been doing his whole life,” he adds with a laugh.

Indeed, as the grandson of the late music publishing executive Donna Hilley, former President/CEO of Sony/ATV Nashville, a passion for country music and songwriting also comes naturally to Tenpenny. He counts Curly Putman and Bobby Braddock among his early songwriting influences.

“I was at my grandmother’s office one time as a kid, and I didn’t know what she did—I just knew she was in the music industry,” he recalls. “They were up there having a meeting with her and she told me, ‘Mitchell, these are the guys that wrote “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”’ It’s like everything just started firing creatively at that point. And growing up, I got to meet a lot of my writing heroes. The Warren Brothers signed me to my first publishing deal and I got to write with them.”

Over the past three years since his previous album released, Tenpenny has gathered plenty of life experience to draw from — in that time, he inked a record deal, earned a double-platinum hit with his debut single “Drunk Me,” weathered a romantic breakup and found new love. He chronicles many of those experiences on his EP.

In “Truth About You,” which he penned with Matt Alderman and Thomas Archer, he faces the aftermath of a messy breakup squarely, with the gut-punch line, “If you quit tellin’ lies about me/ I won’t tell the truth about you.”

“I wrote that song about three years ago and I was coming out of a relationship, so I had that heavy on my mind,” he says. “I’ve lived this song and I’ve been on both sides of this song — sometimes that’s part of growing up, admitting both sides. I think it’s just an all-encompassing song of a bunch of different stories I’ve seen, heard and felt. We knew there was something about that sense of lying and telling the truth and when we got that hook, it was like, ‘This feels right,’ and we built the rest of it around that.”

He penned “Good Thing” with Archer and Kyle Fishman as a musical show of gratitude for his current relationship with girlfriend Meghan Patrick. “On my last record, I had a lot of breakup songs, but this is about loving who you are with and thanking them for loving me and what I want to do with my life,” he explains. “That’s what I have, me and Meghan. We love each other and support each other.” (He recalls first meeting Patrick at Losers Bar & Grill, and inviting her to a Tennessee Titans football game: “It was love after that.”)

“To Us It Did,” which Tenpenny wrote with Schmidt and HARDY, puts a different spin on time-worn, nostalgic elements like high school love, riding around small towns in pickup trucks and evenings spent on the football field. “You play around the country and you see who you’re actually playing for, who this music’s actually reaching,” Tenpenny says. “It’s these smaller towns, these hard working blue collar towns.

“I remember fighting for the line, ‘Shots of Jack and shoulder pads don’t give you superpowers.’ In these small towns, when you put on shoulder pads, you feel just as invincible. I know it’s just high school football and everyone says we live in the glory days — but that set a standard to how I build my team, starting to become a man and learn to mature. There’s just a lot behind that line for me personally.”

On his debut album, Tenpenny concluded the project with “Walk Like Him,” a song about the loss of his father, who died in 2014 after a four-year battle with cancer. This time around, he once again touches on the topic of loss, but takes it in a new direction in the song “Bucket List,” which he wrote with Laura Veltz and Chris DeStefano.

“It was my first write with both of them, and when it’s your first writing session together, you’re asking three adults to become very vulnerable.,” he recalls. “They both have had so many hits, and I respect that. I just wanted to come in and let them know who I was. Somehow we got to talking about loss and I started talking about my father.”

Tenpenny was reluctant to write another “Walk Like Him,” but the conversation still struck a chord with him. “I didn’t want another song specifically about [my father], but I did want a song about loss on this album — because I had so many DMs and people that hit me up saying, ‘This song helped me so much,’” he says. “With ‘Bucket List,’ we focused on how loss happens, so it’s important to appreciate the here and now. Instead of always worrying about 10 years down the road — we might not get that, so let’s make a bucket list and start crossing it off right now.”

Tenpenny, who co-wrote and is also featured on Chris Young’s current single, “At the End of a Bar,” is already hard at work on a new project — one he says will embrace a harder edge, incorporating the influence of those early metal band days.

“Country music to me is about the storytelling and lyrics, and the production always changes,” he says. “With this new album, we went a little heavier on it, a bit more experimental. It’s fun to challenge ourselves, but the one consistent thing will always be the lyrics and the way we try to tell a story. We are doing it tactfully — just blending a bit of what I used to do into what I do now. I think it will be a different sound coming out of Nashville that hasn’t been heard yet.”

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