Mitchell Tenpenny Owes His Country Music Career to His Mom: 'I Just Wanted to Say Thank You'

Mitchell Tenpenny wrote a country song that made his mom cry. He was so pleased, he kept going and "the rest is history"

Mitchell Tenpenny Owes His Country Music Career to His Mom
Rafe Tenpenny, Debbie Tenpenny and Mitchell Tenpenny. Photo: Tristan Cusick

Mitchell Tenpenny remembers the first time he wrote a song that made his mom cry. The experience changed his life. He'd spent much of his time playing drums in metal bands until then. His mom, a Nashville music executive, came to those shows but sat in the back with the other parents and prayed for the concert to end.

"Oh gosh, it was awful," recalls his mother, Debbie Tenpenny. "It was screaming. The lyrics were awful. The song was awful. But we wanted to support him."

Mitchell never wanted a career in anything besides music, but she made him go to college, so he had a backup plan. And then she set him straight.

"I told him, 'If you want to do music in Nashville, you're going to have to stop doing these grudge band things and the screaming,'" she tells PEOPLE. "'You're going to have to learn how to write stuff that's relevant to Nashville.'"

Mitchell, 32, started writing storytelling songs on acoustic guitar, and when he played sang those lyrics, she cried tears of joy. He wanted to make her cry again, and that motivation helped shift his focus to country music.

Now Tenpenny has a No. 1 country song, "Drunk Me," to his credit and is climbing Billboard's Country Airplay chart with his Chris Young duet "At the End of a Bar." When he recently released his new EP The Low Light Sessions, he included another song he wrote for her — "Mama Raised the Hell Out of Me."

"I love my mama to death," Mitchell says. "And I just love that title. You know, that old country saying, 'If you're going to do something, do the hell out of it.' There's something cool about the way me and my brother were raised. I think she raised the hell out of me, and not just in the religious sense. I just wanted to say thank you."

Mitchell wrote "Mama Raised the Hell Out of Me" with Jaren Johnston and Zach Kale. Lyrics include: "Five foot five / Full of grace, full of pride / She saw me coming a mile away / So far from heaven / No chance I would get in /She didn't see me that way / Oh, the devil only knows /The sinner I would be / But Mama raised the hell out of me"

Debbie was thrilled when her son wrote a song about her, and she says all of her friends were, too. She says they started asking her for stories about the trouble he got in, but she just laughs.

"He wasn't that bad," she tells PEOPLE. "He could have been, but he wasn't."

Mitchell Tenpenny Owes His Country Music Career to His Mom
Rafe Tenpenny, Debbie Tenpenny and Mitchel Tenpenny. Courtesy Tenpenny Family

His mother remembers they used to go to family dinners when his dad was alive, and the singer would intentionally rile him up. She says she kicked him under the table to get him to stop, but it never worked.

"He'd be like, 'Quit kicking me under the table,'" Debbie, 61, says. "Later, I'd tell him that I was trying to help. And he said, 'I don't need help.' He liked to be a smarty-smarty sometimes."

Debbie remembers they argued over his church clothes. The singer wanted to wear blue jeans and tennis shoes, and she told him to put on khaki pants. He refused.

"He says, 'Mom, God don't care what you wear to church,'" she remembers. "I was like, 'You know what? You're right. I need to quit focusing on the way I'm dressing and focus on what I'm there for.' I mean, he taught me things, too. I didn't really think he was listening to most of the stuff I said, but he really was."

When Mitchell started to take his country songwriting seriously, Debbie's parents bought him recording equipment and helped him build a recording studio in their home. His songwriting continued to improve, and Debbie reached out to the country singer/songwriter duo The Warren Brothers to help her figure out the next steps Mitchell needed to take to move his career forward.

"Brett [Warren] called that same day and was like, 'Oh my God, Debbie, Mitchell has got me so excited about music again,'" Debbie says. "He said, 'He's ready. He's good.'"

The Warren Brothers pitched Mitchell to Sony Music Nashville as a joint venture. The men started writing together, and Debbie says, "The rest is history."

Mitchell says the way Debbie balanced supporting him with keeping him in line while letting him make mistakes is just the kind of mother she is. He calls her the strongest woman he's ever met.

"She's there," he says. "She's there every single time. I was totally a mama's boy, for sure. It was just that for that peace of mind, knowing that mama was there. I'm very lucky."

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