The most famous “family tradition” in country music would have to be the intergenerational legacy of the Hank Williams clan. Right now, though, there’s another scion of Nashville royalty making good as a third-generation success: singer-songwriter Mitchell Tenpenny, who made modern chart history by managed to have two different No. 1 country airplay hits within the last month.
But the rhetorical questions made famous by Hank Jr. — “Why do you drink? Why do you roll smoke?” — don’t apply in this case, as Tenpenny’s forebears in the business are a pair of strong but morally upstanding women: his grandmother, the late Donna Hilley, who capped a 31-year career at Sony/ATV Music Publishing by serving as CEO from 1994-2005, and his mother, Debbie Tenpenny, who currently works at Sony Music Publishing.
So instead of carrying on a hellraising family tradition, Tenpenny has written an autobiographical song titled “Mama Raised the Hell Out of Me.” (With apologies to Merle Haggard, not all mamas have to settle for just trying.)
“That’s true,” says Debbie Tenpenny, responding to the song’s description of keeping her son on the straight and narrow. “The only thing is, they said, ‘She’s five-foot-five / Full of grace, full of pride.’ I’m five-seven-and-a-half, but it just didn’t rhyme.”
Mitchell Tenpenny says rounding up didn’t seem like the better option. “I could have given her five-nine, but I thnk that might’ve been too much,” he says
The business part of the family extends beyond these three. Mitchell Tenpenny’s aunt, Vicky Arney, another of Donna Hilley’s daughters, also works at Sony Music Publishing. His brother, Rafe, has joined his touring band as bassist, and is on the verge of signing his own publishing deal as a songwriter. And Mitchell is poised to bring another music-bizzer into the family ranks next month when he marries a Canadian country singer-songwriter, Meghan Patrick.
As Variety meets up with Mitchell and Rafe at the Riser House label headquarters on Music Row, their mother joins in by speakerphone, having to miss a planned in-person family meetup because she has just gone through her first round of chemotherapy (although she says “this first cancer treatment got me and I’ve been down for two weeks, but today I feel like a million bucks”).
Mitchell Tenpenny is the rare country performer who’s a lifelong Nashville resident, but Debbie says she was in no position to make nepotism or their lifelong ties in the business work for Mitchell’s career. “I guess if I had any expectations when Mitchell was gonna be a writer and an artist it was, ‘Oh, good. All the people that my mother helped can turn around and help us in return.’ And that wasn’t what it was about — they didn’t do that. From a mother’s perspective, that really hurt, but you know what, he did it on his own and that’s all that matters. Nothing was given to him” — except maybe for the part she considers “a God thing.”
Even a nonbeliever might have to wonder exactly what powers were involved that allowed Tenpenny to have two No. 1 Mediabase country hits separated by only three weeks during the month of September — an interval shorter than any gap between chart-toppers in the modern era. One of those two hits had Tenpenny joining in on another artist’s song, Chris Young’s “At the End of a Bar,” while the followup three weeks later was his own song, “Truth About You,” from his just-released sophomore album, “This is the Heavy.”
The latter song actually went to radio back in August 2021, so when it was finally in reach of the top a year later, he had every expectation that the duet with Young that was cresting slightly earlier would knock his solo triumph out of contention. As it turns out, they like the sound of his voice, they really like it.
“When we got to that point where the two songs started catching up to each other, I was super nervous,” the singer admits. “I’m like, ‘They’re not gonna play me twice in their rotation. That’s gonna be a battle.’ And it was, to be honest with you. It messed us up a lot at the beginning, because on playlists, Mitchell Tenpenny would come up twice, and radio wouldn’t play ’em or they’d have to choose one or the other. I think we broke through a barrier, which is great, because I mean, right now in the pop top 40 you can find an artist that has five songs on the chart, and I don’t understand why we can’t do it here. And maybe we kind of change that, because as long as the songs are working, that’s what the people want to hear.”
Tenpenny is very much a volume dealer. Although it’s been almost a rule that country artists should release an album of 11 or so songs every two to three years, he’s filled the gap between his first top 5 single, 2018’s double-platinum “Drunk Me,” and the new album by putting out EPs, duets, one-offs and other stop-gap measures. And now the new “This Is the Heavy” arrives with no fewer than 20 songs on it. Like another current country success, Zach Bryan, Tenpenny believes in constantly delivering content to fans, trusting that they’ll take it all in and amplify the songs they like best rather than be confused by the torrent as older audiences might have been.
“You don’t just walk into a store and have to choose between 50 records anymore,” he says. “You can choose between 50 million records now. I mean, our songs are like a Tinder swipe away now — it’s just like, nope… nope… yes,” he laughs, miming moving through an app. “They’re that quick, and so you’ve got to give them music. And yeah, it’s been four years since we released a record. So am I only gonna release 11 songs? I’ve written 400 songs. It was hard to pick 20! We could keep going, but 20 felt right. And we’re still gonna do new music in between this record (and the next). I want as many songs to get a chance to get out to the world, as I can, so the more music the better.”
It was that philosophy that led to “Truth About You,” his first solo No. 1, ever getting recorded and released… or even getting finished in the writing process. It took off when Tenpenny put a snippet of it on TikTok, when it was just a fragment and one of many he posted to the app, partly out of research and partly out of pandemic boredom. His song joins Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” as something an artist put up as one of a hundred TikTok moments that suddenly somehow soared above the rest.
“During quarantine, when I was down in my studio a lot, I was being told, ‘Hey, you should try this new social media platform.’ It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, to be honest with you. But there was nothing else to do — and that song just took off and resonated and did a viral thing. It had just been not on my radar because I’d written it so long ago and wasn’t even thinking about it. And of course, then the label [Sony Nashville] calls in and is like, ‘Well, this song is awesome. Here we go. Let’s go do that.’ This was the first song that the fans chose, and I think we need to start listening to that a little bit more, now that we can test songs out and actually get feedback and data based on the actual people that are gonna be listening to the music.”
Call him a TikTok convert… and it gives him pause to believe that a truism that was passed on to him by songwriting legend Bobby Braddock (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”) might not have to hold so true anymore. “Bobby Braddock was someone my grandmother signed back in the day. One time he told me, ‘Mitchell, you’re gonna be buried with your best songs.’ And that was such a gut feeling; I was like, ‘Shit! Yeah. You’re gonna be buried with songs and probably the best ones will never have gotten heard.’ But for me having this platform, it just gives it one more outlet for some of these songs that might not ever get heard to stand a chance.”
For the new album, “This Is the Heavy,” Tenpenny was thinking more about the musical impact than heavy subject matter when he came up with that title. “There’s definitely some lyrical content that’s a little heavier, sure. But we grew up listening to rock bands, man, and the pop-punk-emo scene. I joke and I call it farm emo, too. It’s fun, all of us old rock-emo kids writing country music now, which I love. So lyrically, we kept in the country lane, but we turned the gain up a little bit more on the guitars, put the dramas more forefront than normal country records would do, as far as production goes, and really just had no limits.
“The only thing I kept country in this was the lyrics. I mean, that’s what I’ve always loved about country music, the storytelling. I don’t personally like to write when you just say whatever and just leave it up to interpretation. I’m interpreting what I want you to think this song is about. And so lyrically, I really honed in there. But yeah, we cranked it up on the rock and pop kind of vibes as far as the production goes, so it’s way heavier than the last record, for sure.”
Having his younger brother Rafe in his band has been a boon. They both say it took getting more into adulthood a bit to get over teenaged rivalries and rankings. “You gotta have a beer to kind of get over the competition,” Mitchell says. “But Rafe was always a great musician. So when I got the opportunity to sign a record deal, I just went to Guitar Center, got a bass, came home and I said, ‘Dude, will you do this with me? I don’t wanna do it by myself.’ Having him play acoustic guitar as well and sang harmonies through all the grind of fucking radio tour, it was good to have my brother there and someone that I knew very well, at least to, to experience that new shit together. Because it was scary, man. Some of that stuff, it’s just like, what are we doing? Who are we out here with? What’s going on?”
Rafe says that before radio tour, “I had probably only flown like five times in my life, and suddenly it was three times a day.” Says Mitchell, “It was awesome to have my brother on the road for that. And as it started taking off, I mean, he’s become so influential in this band. If fans come back, they know who my brother is.”
Also, “he raps during the show,” points out his manager, Kristen Ashley. “Not because I wanted to rap,” says Rafe.
Mitchell had entrepreneurial aspirations early on, leading to his co-founding Riser House, a label as well as publisher. “We were just like, ‘Hey, if, if we need a building to make it feel real, then we’ll get the building,’” he says, and he and a partner kept knocking on the door of a location on Music Row that seemed to be unoccupied, even though they never saw anyone inside. Then “two weeks after we got this building, Troy (Tomlinson) said, ‘Did you realize this building was owned by Buddy Killen back in the day?’ I met Buddy when we were kids, and he gave our grandmother her first job and she ended up going from there to receptionist to CEO of Sony, which was crazy.
“I had been in that studio downstairs that I have now, when I was a kid with her and Buddy, and I didn’t realize that when we bought the building, when it all came full circle. They’re tearing down Music Row left and right” — new condo buildings now interrupt the once-unbroken strings of bungalows — “so it was cool to save one building, at least, that had some kind of legacy. The people that have recorded down there and been through this building, including our grandmother, is pretty special. I’m glad we get to save it, because I still do believe in the magic of this row.”
Tenpenny had that breakout with “Drunk Me” in 2018, but he worried that he might be falling off the industry radar a bit in the interim. What’s the measure of that, if you don’t have a single currently in the marketplace? There’s an easy answer, in mainstream country: The biggest tours in arenas and stadiums typically go out as triple-bills, and it’s which of the two opening slots you’re being offered. Tenpenny says they’ve overcome that, and he has signed up to go out in the middle slot on a major tour next year, which he can’t announce yet. (Before that, he’ll be playing a few shows opening for Luke Combs and Luke Bryan this fall, and a short headlining theater tour at the top of 2023.)
Tenpenny credits his manager, Ashley, for turning that perception around with a PowerPoint presentation. “That told a lot of the story that people just didn’t know about what we were doing, just because in the town, for whatever reason, we weren’t in the spotlight on a lot of things,” the singer says. “Kristen put it in front of their faces, man, and said, ‘Hey, look, y’all, this is actually happening, and you want to see numbers compared to everyone else? Here’s the numbers.’ A lot of times we’re like, ‘OK, but we don’t want to be compared to other artists.’ So she said, ‘Fuck it. I’m comparing him to other artists. And here’s where we’re beating ‘em, and you need to know it.’ And because of that, we got a resurgence in this town and woke ‘em up again as we said, ‘Hey, we’re not going anywhere, and we’ve got a good trajectory going — do you wanna hop back on?’ And I give that all to her. I love her to death, even if we fight. She’s my sister.”
Says Ashley, “When we started working on that in January, a lot of people viewed him as being too big for first of three on a tour, but not big enough yet for direct support. And I knew from going to shows the depth of him as an artist — people listen to his music. And so finally, [Sony Music head] Randy Goodman gave us the blessing to pull all those numbers, and it showed that Mitchell is right there with ‘em, if not beating them. For so long, we were running around saying, ‘Mitchell streams so much,’ but without the visual in front of them, no one understands what that means.”
Mitchell and Rafe’s mother, Debbie, hears a lot of this, but never at family meals or gatherings, where they set business aside. “When I call her,” Mitchell says, “I think mom just gets the bitter end of the venting from me, more than anything, about the business. She hears when I’m not so happy about the way things go sometimes in this industry. And Rafe just lets her know where we were this weekend,” he laughs.
“Right,” confirms mom. “Rafe is very laid back. Nothing seems to bother him. And Mitchell’s the total opposite. He’s very high-strung, and he’s very opinionated. We don’t talk business with the whole family, but I’m glad that Mitchell feels he can call me when he is frustrated and we can talk him through that.”
Debbie says she grew up not even liking country music, despite her mother being a queen of the business. Then, after she’d been raising Mitchell for about a year, taking a break from working in the PR business, “Mom was like, ‘We need help with copyrights,’” and she got sucked in. She learned to love country as well as pop after all, “and that was because I just fell in love with writers.” Asked to name favorites, she reels off Braddock, Kix Brooks and the Warren Brothers, among others. Her biggest difficulty with the publishing job at Sony is letting go of some of those attachments. “I get close to writers, and then if they have to drop them, it breaks my heart? The only reason they drop ’em is because just things aren’t happening and it doesn’t behoove them to stay with us; they need to go with someone that’s gonna push them” in a different way, even though “I’ve fallen in love with them and their hearts.”
Debbie is highly approving of the impending nuptials, saying, “I think Megan is amazing for Mitchell because they are in the business together and there are frustrations and they can play off each other. And they can also support each other, like, ‘Don’t get down, it happens to everybody.”
It was 10 years ago that the matriarch of the family — and some would say one of the great matriarchs of Nashville — died. The family shared their memories of the grandma who was one of Music City’s original girl-bosses.
Says Debbie of her mother, “She knew Nashville and knew how to get around people in New York. I remember walking into her office one time just to talk to her, and we had had a new guy that was running publishing. I’m not gonna say the name, but it wasn’t in our office, it was in the New York office. He was trying to tell her about publishing, and he didn’t understand publishing, in her mind. I remember walking in, and all I heard her say was, ‘I was here when you got here, and I’ll be here when you’re gone, and sure enough, two weeks later he was gone.”
“I saw her as grandmother,” says Mitchell. “She came to all our sports games, and going to church, we’d be in her Cadillac — and back then the phone was actually hardwired into the car, so people like Brooks and Dunn and other famous people would call and she’d be talking business. But when you got outta the car, you got your grandmother.”
There is a history of cancer in the family, on both sides, with Debbie fighting the good fight right now. Mitchell’s father, Mitchel James Tenpenny Jr., died of a rare form of the disease in 2014. A few years ago, Mitchell created the 10Penny Fund as a charity to offer support to families of cancer patients, something he felt was lacking.
“For me, the mental side of it, preparing yourself correctly to go fight this, when I was watching my dad go through that, that access just wasn’t there. He was definitely a very stubborn person, and that’s probably where I get mine from. There’s great drugs, there’s great doctors, but the other half of beating cancer is mentally preparing ourselves.”
Debbie thinks they’re getting some nepotistic support, now, from beyond. “Any time Mitchell calls and tells me anything that’s good going on, I’m like, ‘Praise the Lord. Make sure you thank God for this. God is up there helping — and we’ve got my daddy and his daddy and everybody pushing God.”