Country

Makin' Tracks: Young & Tenpenny Elevate a Saloon to a Sanctuary in 'At the End of a Bar'

Mitchell Tenpenny, Chris Young
Matthew Berinato*

Mitchell Tenpenny and Chris Young

"My whole intention was to write a song that Chris would sing the sh*t out of so I could hear his voice," says Mitchell Tenpenny.

Given country music's embrace of alcohol as subject matter, it's only logical that the genre has tended to romanticize the places where it's served.

Joe Diffie's "Honky Tonk Attitude" depicted a club as a setting for sweaty line dancing and electric possibility; David Lee Murphy's "Party Crowd" envisioned the barroom as a place for fighting, laughing and forgetting broken hearts; Randy Travis' "Honky Tonk Moon" cast a rural pool hall as a casual dating locale; and Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar" treated a country club as a redneck version of Cheers.

None of them quite took the approach of Chris Young and Mitchell Tenpenny, whose new collaboration, "At the End of a Bar," practically elevates a saloon to a church.

"What happens at a bar?" asks Young rhetorically. "People go there and they drink, but that's not always what happens."

Although drinking does figure into the song. Young and Tenpenny met up at a hot spot near Nashville's Music Row — likely Loser's or DawgHouse Saloon — in early 2021 and fell into a familiar routine.

"That's really where I met Chris years ago was just at the bar," says Tenpenny. "We became friends, and so we tend to have drinks quite a bit around Midtown or Demonbreun. And we were just doing the normal thing. We were just chatting up, having fun, venting about the industry — you know, everything you do."

Not long afterward, on Feb. 15, Nashville was closed down with an ice storm. Three days later, songwriter Chris DeStefano ("From the Ground Up," "Something in the Water") still couldn't get his car out of his driveway in suburban Brentwood, but Young and Tenpenny were mobile, and they popped over to his house midday for a writing appointment.

"I kinda got FOMO, that fear-of-missing-out moment," says Young. "Everybody always talks about songwriting, that you must be present to win it. I would hate if I ever canceled anything and then that was the day we were supposed to write a huge song."

Young's instincts were good, since this day had all the earmarks of a winner. DeStefano started early, launching a track around 8 a.m. that hinged on an understated acoustic guitar riff. When Young and Tenpenny arrived, they rehashed their night out, and one of them rather casually mentioned that they had been perched at the end of the bar.

"I just remember immediately detaching from the conversation because as soon as I heard that phrase, I just started thinking, ‘That sounds like a song title right there,' " says DeStefano. "All the images and the scenes and the pictures and the moments that you can have sitting at the end of a bar, it was like, ‘Well, we can definitely hang a song on that idea.' "

The work went quickly as they practically transformed a barroom into a sanctuary, viewing it as a place where life's answers can be found, problems can be forgotten and friends can be made.

"Think about everything that starts at the end of the bar," says Tenpenny. "I've been broken up with at the end of a bar. You can make a best friend and never even know their name. We just started throwing that stuff out there, and the song kind of wrote itself pretty easily after that."

A key moment came in verse two, as the talk turned to '90s cover bands and the lyric needed a couple of illustrative titles. They referenced Brooks & Dunn's debut and a Tracy Lawrence hit, and linked them in a way that made a point: "Become a brand-new man/To ‘Time Marches On'/Time marches on."

"We ended up settling on ‘Time Marches On' because you say it twice," notes Young, "and then you sort of have that double entendre of, ‘Are we just talking about the Tracy Lawrence song? Or are we talking about the actual story that is in the song?' It's like, time is continuing forward."

While the verses maintained the moodiness of the foundational acoustic riff, the chorus moved into a higher range and jacked up the intensity. Tenpenny, in particular, steered it in that direction, figuring that even if the song never got recorded commercially, he would still have a demo he could play with Young performing one of his songs.

"My whole intention was to write a song that Chris would sing the shit out of so I could hear his voice," says Tenpenny. "So I started screaming that chorus — I went for it. I went to the top of my fuckin' range, man, ' cause I wanted it. I figured Chris was singing the song at the end of the day for the demo, so I just went for it. I pulled out every high melody I had, and Chris was going along with it and we were just singing it back and forth all day. It was just super fun to write."

DeStefano played a raft of instruments that day — including banjo, fiddle and several guitars — and when they were ready for the demo, Young dropped a minor bombshell: His voice was a bit cranky, and he would rather Tenpenny sing the demo and see what ideas he might bring to it. So much for having Young sing one of his songs. But Tenpenny gave it everything he had, and when he finished a forceful lead vocal, he pieced together an elaborate set of harmony vocals, stacking roughly 20 layers to create a gospel-choir effect.

"They're just so tight that it doesn't feel like there's too much," says DeStefano. "Everything sits in its own place just perfectly. What's great about it, too, is Chris kind of requesting [he sing] that, and then Mitchell put his stamp on it."

Young came back to DeStefano's studio a few days later and did a vocal of his own, but he was so impressed with Tenpenny's vocal that they decided to turn it into a duet, using the demo performance. The label identified it as a single, and thousands of fans showed up on July 5 for a video shoot on Lower Broadway. A day later, they captured barroom footage, with Lawrence making a "Time Marches On" cameo. The video debuted on Aug. 6, and RCA Nashville officially released the single to AM/FM radio via PlayMPE on Aug. 23. It debuted at No. 55 on the Country Airplay chart dated Sept. 25, and rises to No. 51 on the Oct. 2 survey, with its future holding plenty of possibilities, just like a night at the end of a bar.

"There's so many different things that happen, and sometimes that is where it all starts," says Young. "Whether it's a good night, a bad night, friends forever or something that's just a moment in time — being able to put all of that into one song, I think, made it feel bigger."

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.