Tristan Cusick Rafe Tenpenny, Debbie Tenpenny and Mitchell Tenpenny
Mitchell Tenpenny remembers the first time he wrote a song that made his mother cry. The experience changed his life. He had spent much of his time playing drums in metal bands until then. Her mother, a music executive from Nashville, came to those shows but sat in the back with the other parents and prayed for the gig to end.
“Oh my god, it was awful,” recalls her mother, Debbie Tenpenny. “He was screaming. The lyrics were awful. The song was awful. But we wanted to support him.”
Mitchell never wanted to pursue a career in anything other than music, but she got him into college, so he had a back-up plan. And then she straightened it.
“I said to him, ‘If you want to make music in Nashville, you’re gonna have to stop doing that grudge band stuff and the shouting,'” she told PEOPLE. “‘You’re going to have to learn how to write stuff relevant to Nashville.'”
Mitchell, 32, started writing storytelling songs on acoustic guitar, and when he sang those lyrics, she cried with joy. He wanted to make her cry again, and that motivation helped him focus on country music.
Now, Tenpenny has a No. 1 country song, “Drunk Me,” under her belt and is climbing Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with her Chris Young duet “At the End of a Bar.” When he recently released his new EP Low light sessionshe included another song he wrote for her – “Mama Raised the Hell Out of Me”.
“I love my mom to death,” Mitchell says. “And I love that title. You know, that old country that goes, ‘If you’re gonna do something, make hell out of it. There’s something cool about the way my brother and I were raised. I think she raised me, and not just in a religious sense. I just wanted to say thank you.”
Mitchell wrote “Mama Raised the Hell Out of Me” with Jaren Johnston and Zach Kale. The lyrics include: “Five foot five / Full of grace, full of pride / She saw me coming a mile away / So far from heaven / No way I’m going in / She didn’t see me that way / Oh, the devil only knows / The sinner I’d be / But mama got me out of hell”
Debbie was thrilled when her son wrote a song about her, and she says all her friends were too. She says they started asking him for stories about the troubles he had, but she just laughs.
“He wasn’t that bad,” she told PEOPLE. “He could have been, but he wasn’t.”
Courtesy of the Tenpenny family Rafe Tenpenny, Debbie Tenpenny and Mitchel Tenpenny
His mother remembers that they used to go to family dinners when his father was alive, and the singer intentionally pissed her off. She says she kicked him under the table to make him stop, but it never worked.
“He was like, ‘Stop kicking me under the table,'” Debbie, 61, said. “Later I told him I was trying to help. And he said, ‘I don’t need any help.’ He sometimes liked to be a little clever.”
Debbie remembers them arguing over her church clothes. The singer wanted to wear blue jeans and tennis shoes, and she told him to wear khaki pants. He refused.
“He said, ‘Mom, God doesn’t care what you wear to church,'” she recalled. “I was like, ‘You know what? You’re right. I have to stop focusing on how I dress and focus on what I’m here for.’ I mean, he taught me things too. I didn’t really think he listened to most of the things I said, but he really did.
When Mitchell began to take country songwriting seriously, Debbie’s parents bought her recording equipment and helped her build a recording studio in their home. Her songwriting continued to improve, and Debbie reached out to country singer/songwriter duo The Warren Brothers to help determine the next steps Mitchell needed to take to further her career.
“Brett [Warren] called the same day and was like, ‘Oh my God, Debbie, Mitchell got me so excited about the music again,'” Debbie recounts. “He said, ‘He’s ready.’ It is good.'”
The Warren Brothers introduced Mitchell to Sony Music Nashville as a joint venture. The men started writing together, and Debbie said, “The rest is history.”
Mitchell says the way Debbie balanced her support by keeping him in line while letting him make mistakes is exactly the kind of mother she is. He calls her the strongest woman he has ever met.
“She’s here,” he said. “She’s there every time. I was totally a mommy’s boy, that’s for sure. It was just for that peace of mind, knowing mommy was there. I’m very lucky.”