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Mitchell Tenpenny Takes A Shot With ‘Alcohol You Later’
Raise a glass to Mitchell Tenpenny, and he’s likely to join the celebration. His first single, “Drunk Me,” earned a toast by working its way to No. 2 on Country Airplay, and the follow-up — “Alcohol You Later,” which Riser House/Columbia Nashville released via PlayMPE on Jan. 22 — has all the characteristics of a second hit: a distinctive voice, a thriving beat and an undeniable hook.
The new song also provides a topical
parallel to “Drunk Me,” since both it and “Alcohol You Later” invoke adult beverages to tell their stories. In fact, eight of the 11 tracks on Tenpenny’s album, Telling All My Secrets, employ at least a passing reference to firewater, making a not-so-subtle point that a good buzz matters in his world.
“A lot of life from 21 to 30 involves drinking, so I try to write about what I know,” says Tenpenny, 29, who suggests he might cut back next year. “That’s just country music, man.”
“Alcohol You Later” is appropriately the result of a happy barroom accident. In the fall of 2015, Tenpenny was hanging out at Loser’s Bar & Grill, a watering hole on Division Street in Nashville within walking distance of Music Row. He overheard a fellow patron say goodbye to a friend — “I’ll call you later” — but the man’s thick Southern accent garbled the words. It seemed like he said, “Alcohol you later,” and the potential twists in that phrase sounded like the basis for a song.
“I don’t ever have a lot of ideas with the play on words,” says Tenpenny. “I never get those.”
The next day, he showed up for a writing appointment at the West End home of songwriter Michael Lotten. Songwriter- producer Sam Sumser was staying at Lotten’s place in the midst of a working visit from Los Angeles (he has since moved to Nashville), and Tenpenny sheepishly threw out the “Alcohol You Later” title, unsure how it would be received.
“Those titles are so tough,” says Sumser
slope, and you can make it almost corny or like more of a joke than if you’re trying to write a song that makes people feel something.”
But Lotten and Sumser were both in on the title, and it didn’t take long to figure out a boy/girl storyline, one in which a guy finds that every night on the town leads to a phone call to his ex that ends with a late-night tryst. Tenpenny was in the middle of an on-again/off-again relationship at the time, and the other two writers certainly related to it. They weren’t sure who might cut it — Tenpenny didn’t have a recording deal and was actively pitching to other artists — so they consciously avoided a tear-in-my-beer sort of atmosphere.
“We didn’t want the song to be sad,” says Lotten. “We kind of had to ride the fence between you’re not really upset about it, but you know you shouldn’t. It’s kind of a tough balance, but I think it came out feeling right.”
Tenpenny started playing a two-chord pattern, E and A, that allowed a ringing, open-tuned guitar voicing. He also threw out the opening line, “No. 1 on my speed dial,” setting up a scenario where the guy and girl discover they’re both downtown at separate bars, determined to meet up. The end of the verse — “These shots I’m shooting make me not give a damn” — changes the mood from reserved to rebellious, and it breaks into a rhythmic, soaring chorus awash in head-versus-heart conflict. The singer already foresees a dramatic “sunrise
breaking through the curtains” leading him to morning-after regret — “I wanted to feel like you’re watching a movie when you’re listening to it,” says Tenpenny — but the writers managed to hold the “Alcohol You Later” payoff until the very end of the chorus.
“I didn’t want to bookend it,” notes Tenpenny. “I didn’t want to start the chorus with it and give it away and then say it at the end. I wanted to have you wait to hear it and then wait to hear it again.”
Since verse one began with “No. 1 on my speed dial,” they gave verse two its own numerical start — “Two for ones on a Tuesday” — embedding a clever layer that most listeners are unlikely to pick up.
“No one ever catches that,” says Tenpenny. “That’s where I get in my own head, and I’m like, ‘Oh, this will be so cool, and everyone will love this.’ And it goes right over everyone’s head.”
Tenpenny laid down an acoustic guitar part for the demo, which Sumser produced using a mix of programming sounds and real instruments and Lotten ladling on additional guitars. Tenpenny added what became the final vocal within 24 hours of the writing session.
“Mitchell was sick, or something happened, but I went to Mitchell’s house either that night or the next day, and we just did all the vocals: leads, harmonies and other extra little ad-libs,” says Sumser.
“Alcohol You Later” got pitched to other artists, but no one actually bit, perhaps because the song is so perfectly contoured for Tenpenny’s voice.
“With respect, there aren’t a lot of guys that have the range Mitchell has, and I think that probably plays into it a bit,” says Lotten. “I think it was kind of personalized for him. We just didn’t know it at the time.”
“Alcohol” was the first song Riser House released when it signed Tenpenny. It wasn’t originally on the radar when he plotted Telling All My Secrets, but it gained attention on SiriusXM and streaming platforms, and audiences sang it so incessantly at concerts that it forced its way into the project. Fan reaction subsequently propelled it to single status; thus, the song keeps coming back, much like the couple in its storyline.
It appears this week at No. 4 on the New & Active chart. Among the people who have likely heard it is the woman Tenpenny had in mind when he wrote “Alcohol You Later” in 2015. She’s no longer in his personal life, though she has left a definitive mark on his vocation. Just like alcohol.
“That song is real,” says Tenpenny. “When I was writing it, I was just writing it right down the middle of what was going on at the time. It makes it easier that way.”