Mitchell Tenpenny strolls through the halls at Sony Music Nashville casually swinging a liter of Tenpenny Spiced Rum at his side. You know he is coming by the easy laughter and casual banter with everyone he passes. The beverage was a gift from a staffer and not a birthright.
He’s amused by the interest in his surname – mostly because he doesn’t have a clue as to the origin (Irish, he thinks) – but his name is garnering attention for all the right reasons.
Tenpenny is genial and relaxed for someone who has just snapped the photo that will announce his joint-venture with Sony Music Nashville and Riser House Entertainment a full-service label, artist management, and music publishing compound he founded with Matt Swanson and Jennifer Johnson. It’s not that he isn’t excited, it’s just that he has a casual confidence that is in regular contrast with his s heart-on-his-sleeve expressive nature.
Spend some time with him and you will quickly discover that Tenpenny lives effortless on both ends of the spectrum.
He is both an industry insider and outlier. Someone with a local’s appreciation of the foundational roots of Nashville and a keen focus on what happens outside of Music City.
A rugged individualist, he operates with complete comfort and assurance in the space between contradictory themes. He is a creative thinker with a sharp business sense. He is fiercely competitive, but is an equally vocal proponent for his industry colleagues. He finds inspiration in music as diverse as Michael Jackson and the Oak Ridge Boys
And none of that seems the least bit unusual or out of whack to the Nashville native with an industry pedigree (his grandmother was industry legend Donna Hilley, CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing).
He’s authentic thanks in large part to Tenpenny’s fearless skill as a songwriter, which includes a Top 5 hit for Granger Smith, “If the Boot Fits,” and time spent opening for a variety of influential artists including Smith, Jake Owen, Brett Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dustin Lynch, Gary Allan, and others.
That multiplicity is also reflected in his sound. Tenpenny’s diverse musical taste and soulful vocal delivery were developed after years of singing harmonies in church and later honed pounding drums and scolding the mic as the “lead screamer” in angsty high-school, hard-core rock bands.
His musical trajectory solidified when he made his momma cry.
“I played my first country song and my momma started crying and I thought, ‘OK, this is what I need to do,’” he reflected on the moment his musical direction took shape. “It was a song called ‘Be My Baby’ and it was terrible, but it had a melody, and a story, and I wasn’t screaming. To see that emotion from her was awesome.”
It was a turning point: “I started writing stories from where I come from rather than where I thought I wanted to be.”
Where he comes from was fertile ground with musical influences as disparate as Jackson, John Mayer, the Oaks, and R. Kelly. The resulting sound on his Riser House/Columbia Nashville debut is current, edgy, and grounded in themes intrinsic to the South.
He cites Mayer as an artist who can morph his vocal interpretation to fit each song, rather than letting his voice dictate the delivery. And that vocal mastery is evident in his Riser House/Columbia Nashville debut single, which is due this spring.
He is as comfortable with an acoustic guitar as he is onstage with his full band. In either case, he craves the personal connection. As a performer Tenpenny isn’t striving for perfection, but something genuine.
“I remember the first time the crowd was singing back to us, and I turned to my band told them, ‘They are only doing this because they believe it,’” he recalled. “It’s the best feeling in the world and the most humbling thing.”
He will claim he has never “worked” a day in his life, but Tenpenny has a work ethic forged by football and a competitive drive that keeps his creative wheels spinning writing with some of the most prolific and influential songwriters in Nashville.
His drive comes from playing sports (defense, power forward, pitcher, and first base) but his fearlessness actually originates with an enlightened coach. “I had the best football coach in the world and he told us before every game, ‘Don’t be afraid to lose,’” Tenpenny recalled. “That perspective was a huge blessing for me. He gave us the freedom to try and the confidence to win.”
It was an epiphany and so was the day he met Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam. He wasn’t even 10-year-old, hanging out in his grandmother’s office on the top floor at Sony/ATV when she introduced him to the legendary writers.
“I didn’t realize they were songwriters,” he said. “But I loved ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ and she said to me, ‘These are the guys that wrote that song.’ And it blew my mind. I just assumed all artists wrote their own songs. But it just clicked for me, because those guys were cool. I wanted to be that.”
No one ever told him he couldn’t achieve his goals.
Fame and a recording contract “is such a farfetched thing outside of Nashville,” he opined. “But here we see it all the time. It something that never happens, but it happens here all the time.”
Spiced rum may not be a birthright, but navigating the backroads of Nashville and being around the finest songwriters and creative minds in the industry established a high bar for Tenpenny.
“I want you to believe in everything I sing,” he said. “Every ‘no’ and every ‘yes’ has lead up to this moment. I’ve been given the freedom to do what I have always wanted to do – and believe in – and at the same time be truthful and honest about the music.”