For almost three years, Mitchell Tenpenny held back his grief over his father’s death, but late one night behind the wheel of his band’s van, the dam he’d built finally burst.
“It just hit me and I broke down that night,” the “Drunk Me” singer recalls to PEOPLE. “There was just something about the loneliness and everything, realizing that my dad’s not there.”
Tenpenny shoved sunflower seeds in his mouth and gulped down Mountain Dew, trying to put his emotions back behind the wall. Instead, his songwriter’s heart took over, and he found the words to comfort himself, an observation that his mother and grandmother had made all his life: “You walk like him.”
That message — that maybe Tenpenny’s dad was still there inside him — has now made its way into his latest release, “Walk Like Him,” the inspiring final track on his debut album, Telling All My Secrets, due out Dec. 14.
The 29-year-old Nashville native says he wrote the song not only to help himself, “but hopefully help somebody else, to connect and say, ‘We’re all in this together.’”
The song is filled with traits he shares with his father, Mitchell James Tenpenny Jr., a telephone lineman who went by “Mitch” and handed down his name to his first-born son. Like his dad, Tenpenny loves listening to old Eagles music, knows how to work with his hands, and doesn’t “whine about my problems.” And then there’s the way he walks, with toes pointed out “at 10 and two.”
“I’ve always wanted my feet in,” says Tenpenny, “but they just don’t.”
In 2010, while Tenpenny was away at college, his father was diagnosed with a rare form of soft-tissue cancer; he lost his battle four years later, at age 58.
“He did radiation, chemo, and never complained,” Tenpenny recalls. “That was the thing my parents did. They kind of hid everything from my brother and me. I never really knew how sick he was because he didn’t show it. I was off at college, and when I would come home, they’d be extremely optimistic on every visit.”
Tenpenny moved back to Nashville after college, soon signing with Sony/ATV as a songwriter and finding his legs as a performing artist. Through it all, he says, his father kept encouraging him: “He said it every time, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. You got your own stuff.’”
When his father’s condition rapidly deteriorated, Tenpenny was blindsided. He reacted to the death, he says, by numbing himself. “I put my head down and went to work, you know, just trying to take care of my mom, whatever she needed, and my brother, as well,” he says. “I had to become the man of the house for my mom and my brother.”
Three years later, after the tear-soaked night on the highway, Tenpenny at first hesitated to put his new-found emotions to music. For a couple months, he just sat with them — before showing up at songwriting session exhausted from touring and unprepared. He told songwriting partners Justin Ebach and Steven Dale Jones that all he had was a shred of an idea, “You walk like him.”
“I just kind of threw it out there, and they loved it,” Tenpenny says. Their excitement energized him: “They pretty much just let me guide the whole thing and do it, and I’m very grateful for that because I don’t know if it would have gotten written had they not let me do that.”
Bringing the song to life, he says, “got me through the rest of last year, and it got me in a mindset of the next year, which has been the best year of my life so far.”
In fact, it has been Tenpenny’s breakout year. He’s now riding the wave of “Drunk Me,” which has been certified gold and recently hit the top 10.
In recent days, Tenpenny has added “Walk Like Him” to his stage setlist, and he’s finding it’s a challenge to perform. The fact that his younger brother, Rafe, who plays bass in his band, sings harmony with him doesn’t make it any easier.
“I’ve done it three times now live and I’ve choked up every time,” he says. “It’s hard when you hit that chorus, especially when my brother starts doing the harmony that comes in. The other night, I did it at a round for, like, fifteen hundred people, and everyone’s crying, and I couldn’t even hit that last chorus.”
So far, Tenpenny and his brother have held off having a heart-to-heart about the song, but his mother, he says, wept when she heard it. “She is the strongest one in the family, for sure,” he says. “But she’s mom, so she gets emotional when she sees her boys succeed and be a little vulnerable sometimes. I think she likes that.”
Releasing his grief and turning it into music, he says, has shown him new possibilities in his songwriting.
“It’s opened me up a little bit more,” he says. “It’s easier to think about other deeper things and moments that weren’t necessarily easy to grab out of my memory when you lock everything up, if that makes sense. More memories have opened up, for sure.”