Makin' Tracks: Tenille Arts Loves Her Mom (And Will Make You Cry About Your Own)

Joseph Llanes
Tenille Arts

When Tenille Arts made her second appearance on ABC’s The Bachelor on Jan. 21, Reviver Records threw a watch party at Nashville’s Back Corner that left at least one or two attendees in tears.

Arts played a short set that night that included a stripped-down version of a new song, “Call You Names,” that puts a mature spin on a key life relationship: mother and daughter. It’s a complicated one -- some women struggle with their mom an entire lifetime; others grow beyond the traditional parent/child role to become friends. “Call You Names,” released as a single via PlayMPE on April 9, takes that latter path, connecting with women (and men) who came to see their mom as a close ally, as well as with others who wish they had been able to forge that kind of bond.

“It’s definitely pulling on some heart strings,” concedes Arts.

And she knows something about the topic. Growing up in Canada, she went through a bit of a rebellious streak. But any remaining vestiges were wiped away two years after she graduated from high school. She lived with her parents as she worked to get her visa so she could to move Nashville, and it was only then that she fully appreciated her mom’s sacrifices.

“I really got to witness everything she did in the day, and it was just amazing,” says Arts. “I immediately felt the guilt of just adding extra stress to her life when I knew she had four kids and she was a stay-at-home mom, and she was driving us everywhere. It was just a moment of, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need to make up for how I bad I was as a teenager.’ ”

One way to do that is to write a song for her, though it comes with a built-in challenge: “It has to be special if you’re going to write about your mom,” says Arts.

She invoked another maternal adage -- necessity is the mother of invention -- when she penned “Call You Names” last summer. After several years of working with mostly the same set of songwriters, Reviver Publishing/A&R consultant Carol-Ann Mobley challenged Arts to try collaborating with some new ones, and she booked a session with James Slater (“In My Daughter’s Eyes,” “Unstoppable”). The night before the appointment, Arts sat on her bed, disturbed that she had no strong ideas to bring.

“I’m so nervous,” she recalls. “It’s a new writer, you want to make a good impression, and so I grabbed my old guitar -- the very first guitar my parents ever bought me -- and I started playing these chords. I had no idea what the chords were. I just kind of started picking away at it, and some of the first lines starting coming to me.”

They were lines about her teens, particularly the opening scene, in which she’s confronted for smoking cigarettes. She sung those words into her recorder, then fumbled through what she envisioned as the chorus: “I called you all the names/ I could think of.” It was a way, she realized, to capture “the relationship I had with my mom when I was younger and now how our relationship has changed into calling her all these beautiful names.”

Since she didn’t really know Slater, she spent some time interacting with him the next day before she showed her cards. But when she did, it was clearly the idea they needed to work on, and they invested a good eight hours that day becoming acquainted and writing an intimate, personal piece. The verses took a conversational tone, each phrase winding along slowly until the last word finally coincided with a downbeat. They contrasted nicely with the chorus melody, which hit the downbeat immediately and lifted into a fluttery, held note in a higher register. The lyrics changed, too, after that first verse to reflect the growth in the mother/daughter relationship. The names she had called her mother evolved from put-downs to appreciations: “angel,” “saint” and “best friend.”

Arts and Slater had so much material that they spent a second four-hour session massaging the lyrics, cutting many of them and finally fitting in a phrase that twists all that name-calling into phone calls. “That was a line that kind of bounced around the song a bit because we weren’t sure quite where to put it,” notes Arts. “I literally call my mom every single day about the smallest things.”

Arts recorded two versions of the song, but still wasn’t sure she had nailed it. The night of The Bachelor party, Reviver president Gator Michaels hinted to new Reviver writer/producer Alex Kline (Erin Enderlin, Tara Thompson) that she should take a crack at it. He confirmed later, and Arts came over to Kline’s basement studio shortly afterward to hash out her ideas.

“It was a little daunting for me to produce it,” admits Kline, “because everyone was so in love with that song, and all they had been used to hearing was the way [Tenille played] it at the show, which was just with an acoustic guitar. I didn’t want to ruin it; I didn’t want to overproduce it. I also didn’t want to underproduce it.”

Kline laid down several basic instrumental parts and got a quick vocal from Arts, then hunkered down alone for several days, experimenting with an arrangement that would create some movement without calling too much attention to itself. During that period, Kline’s basement flooded. The equipment was unharmed, but the carpet and baseboards had to be ripped out to stave off mold problems. She reached out to a source who was appropriate for the song.

“My mom is the first person I call when anything like that happens,” says Kline. “I had a nice little panic attack. My parents live in California, and I’m in my mid-30s, but I’m like, ‘Mom, can you come out here?’ She said, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ She didn’t fly out.”

Kline hired two additional instrumentalists: steel guitarist Smith Curry and drummer Fred Eltringham, who wedged in a two-hour session and brought along a few unexpected options, including a wash basin that he banged several times -- appropriate, since young adults are known to call Mom with laundry questions.

When Arts opened for Reba McEntire at a Minnesota casino on Aug. 11, 2018, her mother and grandmother visited from Canada, and Arts played “Call You Names” for her family for the first time. She could tell by her mom’s reaction that the opening verse and chorus, representing her contentious teens, were difficult to hear, but her response transformed as the song’s attitude evolved. “Everybody was crying, and I remember looking at my grandma and being like, ‘Mom was the same way I was, wasn’t she?’ ” recalls Arts. “She just nodded her head. It’s kind of funny how every generation seems to pull on the same heart strings.”

“Call You Names” got attention for Mother’s Day, but moms are meaningful year-round, so Reviver went with it as a single -- despite initial reservations from Arts, who saw it as an unconventional choice for the summer. But the strong emotional reaction from audiences spoke loudly, and Arts eventually came around when she recognized the song had the potential to make a greater impact than a breezy uptempo title.

“I really wanted to come with something that showed who I was as an artist and shared more of who I am,” she says. “If people can relate to you, that’s so much more important.”

Even more important than that, she made her mom proud.