August 23, 2019: Tenille Townes waxes a little nostalgic as she calls in from a tour stop in Chicago, Ill., ruefully telling Country Now that it’s her last night performing as part of Dierks Bentley’s 2019 Burning Man Tour. “I’m feeling like summer camp is ending. I’m very sad, but also mostly just insanely grateful, she says. “It’s been such an incredible year out on the road with him. He’s the best. He’s taken the best care of us.”
For the rising star, the tour’s ending is bittersweet. She hates to say goodbye, but in just one month, she’ll be back out on the road again — this time opening for Miranda Lambert, alongside the Pistol Annies, Elle King and Maren Morris, as part of the 2019 Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars run. The upcoming tour has plenty of sentimental value, too, especially because a 2018 opening slot for Lambert helped launch Townes’ career as a major live artist not so long ago.
“I am so excited to hit the road with Miranda again. Being on the road with her last summer was one of the most remarkable things,” the singer relates. “That was my first tour ever to be a part of, and getting to watch and learn from her was pretty extraordinary. So I’m just thrilled to get to have the opportunity to do that again, and get to sing along to all those songs every night, and just be around her. She’s such an encouraging force for female voices and great music.”
As she continues to tour and perform, the singer is quietly building a catalogue of powerfully told, unconventional and important songs. Like her tour boss, Lambert, Townes is an artist with a knack for storytelling and dialing into the heart of an issue with just a few lyrics. The latest of those songs is “Jersey on the Wall (I’m Just Asking),” inspired by the singer’s real-life experience spending time with a group of students in Grand Manan, New Brunswick who had recently lost a close friend in a car accident.
“I played for the school in a tiny town on this tiny little island, and I was so blown away, just by the community spirit that this group of people had, and the way the kids in this school were really looking out for each other,” she explains. “A teacher pulled me aside afterwards and told me that there had been a car accident with five kids from the high school, four of which I’d been hanging out with all day and had no idea what they’d been through. One of which, her name was Danielle, she was a star basketball player, valedictorian, and she’d just graduated with a full ride scholarship [and she died in the accident.]”
The following spring, Townes returned to Grand Manan to surprise the students during their high school graduation. “The whole town is piled in there, and Danielle’s parents get up and give their daughter’s honorarium scholarship to Zoe, who was also in the car that day, and one of her best friends. I saw Danielle’s jersey hanging up on the wall, and thought about all the questions I had for God, you know. Shortly after that trip, one of my best friends from home lost her little brother, and that put me in the place of asking more of those questions. That’s where the song comes from.”
“Jersey on the Wall” explores all the questions that Townes has for God about life here on earth, from simple muses on everyday miracles (“How do you make a snowflake?”) to much tougher stuff (“Why can’t you stop a car from crashing?”). Its lyrics struggle with faith, even broaching the subject of how tragedy can separate people from their relationships with it, but “Jersey on the Wall” is not about dismissing God. On the contrary, Townes says, it’s asking those hard questions that bring her closer to her own spirituality.
“To me, the wrestle is a very strong part of faith. Being honest with the questions you have, and just being able to talk about it — like, ‘I don’t understand this’ — I think that’s what brings us closer. That’s what brings me closer to my faith,” she says. “I think the honesty is what makes believing in God more true.”
Using honesty to forge connection is a hallmark of Townes’ songwriting. Again and again, the singer takes on complex, important topics that don’t often appear in country songs. So it is with her debut single, “Somebody’s Daughter,” a track that grapples with homelessness and imagines the backstory of a young woman standing at the side of the road along a highway exit. While large-scale societal or philosophical issues aren’t the only things she writes about, Townes says that for her, music is a refuge — a place where she can explore any issue on her mind, whatever that may be.
“Music is just this safe place that somehow makes it easier to talk about things that are maybe harder to actually have a conversation about,” she goes on to say. “Like, if you hear about it in a song, or talk about it in a song, it kind of kicks those doors open to those places that I think are scary to go in alone. I think that is a big part of why I love and feel drawn to music, because it is a safe place. I think the writing comes from that place because that’s what I lean towards. But I love writing about anything and everything.”
Fans will get to see the whole scope of her recent musical output when she releases her upcoming debut album, a collection of songs that “all very much mean something to me in the sense of what they stand for and what they talk about,” Townes adds.
As she moves toward that project’s release, the singer is doing everything she can to memorialize every landmark along the way. Townes is an avid journaler, keeping notes on every exciting new development in her career. Though events like the end of her stint on the road with the Burning Man Tour might make it tempting to look back at the memories she’s accrued thus far, Townes doesn’t have time to be too sentimental just yet .
“I think it’s a little soon, you know? I feel like I spend most of my time just trying to keep up to date on the journals, not necessarily reading back through it yet,” she says. “But I feel very excited about continuing to add more pages to it, and it’s pretty amazing to take those moments to really soak in some of the stuff that’s happening and make sure that I do remember it, so that some day when I do wanna look back, it’ll all be there.”
In the meantime, the singer finds other ways to cap off important milestones. Though the Burning Man Tour may be behind her, she’s reuniting with her tour boss this weekend to perform at Bentley’s second annual Seven Peaks Festival. Townes is excited to see everyone from her last tour again, and hints that there might even be a special appearance in the works when the Hot Country Knights, Bentley’s alter-ego ‘90s cover band, takes the stage.
“The Hot Country Knights is playing an hour-long set on Friday, so I’m definitely setting my heart on that. That’s gonna be a lot of fun, There might be some, uh, interesting additions!” she says. Does that mean she could see herself as perhaps being an honorary Knight for the evening?
“I could, very possibly,” she responds slyly.