Most people might try to forget drunken nights. Mitchell Tenpenny would rather turn his into a hit song.
The 29-year-old singer is quickly becoming country music’s hottest newcomer, all thanks to his breakout single “Drunk Me.” While the anthemic track does have plenty of references to drunken troubles (“Some need to hit the bottom to see they got a problem,” “All those bottles sitting up on the shelf are just salt on the wound”), the song is a metaphor for a former love that you just can’t get past, as indicated by the hook “Drunk me can’t get over you.”
“There was something so simple about that — you get the whole thing,” Tenpenny suggests. “And the way it says, ‘Drunk me can’t get over you,’ sometimes the hook has to work out like that.”
But hooks don’t just “work out” for the Nashville native, as wit has become part of his songwriting process — and, of course, alcohol. “I’ve got tons of alcohol songs. It’s country music; we have to write about what we know,” he adds with a laugh.
His technique is clearly working: “Drunk Me” just hit the top 10 of the Hot Country Songs chart (dated Oct. 27), sits at No. 11 on the Country Airplay chart, and holds strong at No. 72 on the Billboard Hot 100. As the song continues to climb, Tenpenny filled Billboard in on his wordplay-filled process and why he has no problem being known as the guy with controversial song titles.
You were born and raised in Nashville. Did you always envision being a country singer?
I always saw myself in a band, never saw myself as a solo artist. In middle school I started with a rock band called Reserved, named that because we went to a place and there were a bunch of “Reserved” stickers left over after a party. We were like “Dude, Reserved! It’s totally our band name! Look, we got stickers, it’s done.” [Laughs] I started with that and did the hardcore, emo, screaming scene, and then came back home to a singer-songwriter of country once I got into college.
I know it’s my name now, but I still see myself as a band — my brother plays bass, and some of my best friends are in my band. It’s what I’ve grown up with, it’s what I love to do, and it kind of just worked out. I never really thought about ever doing anything else.
Did you think “Drunk Me” would be the kickoff to your career?
I didn’t. I thought it was going to get cut, but we pitched it around for a while and no one took a ride on it. I never write for myself — it puts you in a box, at least for me personally. Because something you love that day might not be who you are next week, and I don’t like being stuck to that standard. But when it came time to make a record and “Drunk Me” was still [available], it was a no-brainer. I was like, “This feels like what I want to say in this record and as a first thing to the world.”
What made “Drunk Me” feel special?
It’s the performance I’ve always wanted to give. It sounds like Whitney Houston, almost. I’m not comparing myself to her [Laughs], but I always loved the cinematic element of her records. Those big drops, those reverbs and belting out. It felt like a song you could scream shamelessly in your car or your shower.
Is wordplay something you always try to include in your songs?
I love quirky lyrics. I want you to think a little bit, not too hard. I want you to know exactly what I’m saying, but at the same time, you have your own interpretation. That’s the fun part about being a songwriter, and the awesome part about having other guys in the room — you can work off of each other to find that perfect lyric that balances well with the quirkiness.
Is there a lyric of “Drunk Me” that you like most?
The very first words: “Some people don’t know when to quit, but that’s why they quit.” It kind of started the whole concept for that song.
I personally like “There ain’t no hangover like you.”
For sure, that’s definitely a good one. We all know the headache from both waking up the next morning. [Laughs]
Is there any sort of impact that “Drunk Me” has had on your career outside of the obvious?
Hearing other artists say, “Man, I really dig this song,” because you always want to know that your peers dig something. Edwin McCain hit me up on Twitter and said he loved the song. I got to sing “Drunk Me” and “I’ll Be” with him in Nashville. It was a full-circle moment, because I asked a girl to my first prom with that song. It was a special night.
What a full circle dream come true for me. One of the first songs I ever learned to sing and play on guitar and one of my all time favorite singers in the world! I got to meet one of my hero’s and he was the nicest most humblest guy. I was truly honored to sing “I’ll be” and hear your voice on “drunk me” thank you @theedwinmccain for a memory I’ll hold dear forever!
Do you have a favorite performance of “Drunk Me”?
The first time we heard it sung back, at Chicago LakeShake. We had a full crowd, and when I started singing the first words of “Drunk Me,” I had everyone singing it back. I started crying. It was hard for me to even hit the first chorus. That’s everything you dream about. I turned around, looked at the band and said, “This is why we do this.”
You’ve also released songs called “Alcohol You Later” and “Bitches.” Did you ever worry about how your song titles could be perceived?
I wasn’t concerned. I’m telling true things about what I’ve gone through. This world takes everything so seriously — drinking is part of the genre! You gotta say “Fuck it. Let’s do it. This is what they’re gonna say anyway, so why should we church it up?”
I don’t care, and that’s kinda where I’ve gotten by. I’m going to say it how I’m going to say it, and if it resonates and you feel something from it, that’s great. It’s worked for us so far, and we’re just going to stay true to that.
A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 20 issue of Billboard.