2019 American Music Awards

Makin' Tracks: Tenille Townes' 'Jersey on the Wall' Dresses Real-Life Tragedy With a Coat of Hope

Jessica Steddom
Tenille Townes

Author M. Scott Peck hit the nail on the head with the opening line in his self-help masterpiece The Road Less Traveled: Life is difficult. And nothing creates more difficulty in life than when the life of a person we love or admire comes to an end -- particularly if it’s an unnatural, unexpected death.

It’s a sure thing that nearly everyone will encounter that kind of tragedy during their time on earth, and people demonstrate much about themselves -- their strengths, their weaknesses, their demons -- as they handle the aftermath. Sometimes the survivors are downright inspirational.

That’s the scenario behind “Jersey on the Wall (I’m Just Asking),” Tenille Townes’ unusual sophomore single, which uses a real-world tragedy to ask unanswerable spiritual questions about death while an insistent kick drum demands that life will go on. In some ways, it’s a prayer with a backbeat.

“It is very much a delicate and important subject to me,” says Townes, “and I’m very thankful for the way that that song unfolded.”

Townes did not know what she was walking into when she performed for students at the high school in Grand Manan, New Brunswick, a few years ago. Danielle Park, the star of the Breakers basketball team, was killed in a car accident on Whistle Road -- known locally as Thrill Hill -- on July 13, 2014, just weeks after she had graduated valedictorian. Her four fellow passengers survived, and the 17-year-old who lost control of the other car was charged with reckless driving. The small town was devastated.

The singer-songwriter hung out with several students during the day, and only after her performance did she discover that those kids included the four survivors. Townes bonded with the group, and the following year, she attended commencement, where Park’s parents -- who told the courts they did not want retribution from the convicted driver -- gave a scholarship to a graduate in Danielle’s name.

“There’s not a dry eye in this room, and hanging on the wall was her jersey,” recalls Townes. “I looked at it and just thought about questions I had for God.”

When one of Townes’ best friends subsequently lost her younger brother, her questions intensified, and she walked into an October 2016 writing appointment with Gordie Sampson (“Knockin’ Boots,” “Jesus Take the Wheel”) and singer-songwriter Tina Parol intent on writing a piece that incorporated that symbolic jersey.

Parol, by chance, had her own struggle; a friend was enduring health issues, and she was helpless to change her friend’s circumstances.

“We sort of became allies in the room that day,” says Parol. “We just met, but it’s intense feeling something we’re sharing. So, let’s get it out in song, and let’s make sure that it’s not about not believing in God. It’s about trusting him even when you don’t understand why something so awful could happen to someone so good.”

The song’s subject matter was obviously heavy, so Sampson created an uncharacteristic midtempo beat to prevent it from becoming morbid.

“It’s a tempo that I personally have been experimenting with a lot,” he says. “We often have full-time ‘feels’ and half-time ‘feels,’ and there’s kind of a way you can do it where it’s both at the same time.”

The song developed in sequence, from start to finish, with the jersey described in detail — No. 27 for the Tigers — though it was intentionally different from Park’s real-life No. 9 for the Grand Manan Breakers.

“I didn’t want to be on the nose directly about that town in too much of a heavy way,” says Townes.

After introducing the jersey, the verse closes by noting that the late athlete’s championship credentials are not the reason it hangs in the gymnasium, then launches into a chorus of ethereal questions the singer is saving for heaven: “How do you make a snowflake?” “Are you angry when the earth quakes?” By the end of the chorus, she finally unveils her biggest question: “Why can’t you stop a car from crashing?/ Forgive me, I’m just asking.” It’s the first time the accident is disclosed in the song.

“That was the way that Tenille wanted to steer the story, and she did it so wonderfully,” says Sampson. “It is an element that we use in writing all the time, and I’m currently really into these days, is to just mislead everybody a little bit during the verse. It’s like the way great movies that we love mislead us.”

After the victim’s death is revealed, verse two finds the people left behind trying to recover. A silhouette among the senior pictures in the yearbook underscores the hole the person left behind, while a mother admits her anger to God: “Your plans quit making sense down here on earth.” The writers anticipated some music fans might feel uneasy about that anger, so they used a short bridge to reinforce the singer’s humility: “You don’t have to answer now/ Oh, but someday...”

“I love going to those places that are hard to talk about, because it’s a courageous thing for people to bring that up,” says Townes. “I love that the song stirs up that kind of emotion. I, in my own faith walk, have struggled with so many of those questions -- and being able to be honest for having them is the one thing that has brought me closer to God in all of it.”

Townes was in the process of signing with Sony Music Nashville when the song was written. “Jersey on the Wall” stirred emotions when she introduced it to the label, and she took extra care with it during a tracking session with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Miranda Lambert) at his St. Charles Studio.

The biggest obstacle was the percussion. Drummer Fred Eltringham tried a series of approaches until they finally found that muffled kick-drum backbeat, contrasted with the fuzz of brushes swirling and the formality of an occasional militaristic ripple. Once the drums came together, the rest of the production fell into place.

Townes delivered the final vocal as the track went down with Park, her friend’s brother and the Grand Manan survivors in her heart. “I definitely remember very consciously stepping into that place in full focus that day,” she remembers. Honoring those people “was the most important thing to me, more than hitting any note. It’s [about] what sounds the most real.”

In the end, Townes’ performance and the kick-fueled production provide an uplift that balances out the weight of the subject matter. “There’s this sort of hopeful ambiance,” says Parol. “I don’t know if it’s the Hammond B3 or the synth patterns or whatever. It has this kind of bigness that gives it a triumphant hopefulness.”

Columbia Nashville released “Jersey on the Wall” to terrestrial radio through PlayMPE on Sept. 9 with an add date of Sept. 30. Townes hopes it makes a difference in a difficult world.

“My most favorite part about country music,” she says, “is the fact that it can reach those places, it can talk about things that are hard, and it can make people feel like they’re not the only ones feeling a certain way.”

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