When Tenille Townes released her debut EP, Living Room Worktapes, she introduced herself as the kind of songwriter who was unafraid to tackle the most difficult of subjects. Her first single, “Somebody’s Daughter,” told the story of a homeless woman through precise and potent lyrics full of empathy. Then there was “Jersey on the Wall,” written as a reflection on grief and how great loss can challenge one’s faith. It’s not a love song or a party song, but a moment of country music existentialism.
While Living Room Worktapes‘ version of “Jersey on the Wall” is raw and acoustic, the new single — released today and produced by Jay Joyce — finds it propelled by heartbeat percussion and contemplative piano. Inspired by real events, Townes manages to both test her faith and fortify it all at once. “If I ever get to heaven/you know I got a long list of questions,” the Canadian-born Townes sings in her unique quiver. “How do you keep this big rock spinning?/Why can’t you stop a car from crashing/? Forgive me, I’m just asking.”
Currently on the road with Dierks Bentley before she joins Miranda Lambert’s Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars tour in late September, Townes talks about the genesis of the song, what it means to be a vehicle for the pain of others, and how she felt singing with Brandi Carlile.
“Jersey on the Wall” was inspired by real events back in Canada, where you would perform shows at high schools. How did you turn those experiences into song?
I had taken a trip to New Brunswick, playing at middle schools and high schools across Canada, and my adventures took me to this tiny little island. I played a show for the school and the parents, and a teacher afterwards explained to me that part of the reason they brought me there was to be a part of this grieving process. There had been a fluke car wreck, and Danielle, the valedictorian and star basketball player, had been taken in the accident. I got to fly back the following spring for graduation, and I saw Danielle’s jersey on the wall. I remember staring at it and going, “I really have questions for God.” Shortly after that trip one of my best friends from home lost her little brother, and it put me in this place of asking more questions. I think it’s ok to have those.
Though this song was written from certain personal experiences, it’s especially potent given all of the unrest in the world right now, particularly considering recent mass shootings. Asking “why,” even from a spiritual sense, feels very appropriate.
Yes, it’s a very interesting time and I really believe those questions are completely allowed and normal and very much human. Validating those questions is such an interesting thing to give people permission for. Music kicks open those doors to the places we are scared to go ourselves.
You can’t be human and not have experienced loss. How have fans shared with you the ways that “Jersey on the Wall” has resonated?
I always feel like it’s such an honor to get to hear people talk about it. You can tell when they walk up to you with their eyes down, or they are talking and then they get this bit of courage. It’s always an honor and I always try to ask people what the name of the person [they lost] is, and give them a hug and say a momentary prayer. It’s a very crazy thing to carry and feel like people can come up to me and maybe get it off their chest.
Songs that tackle serious, weighty subject matter are rare on country radio — this isn’t a party song and neither was “Somebody’s Daughter.” Asking radio to play something that makes people think isn’t easy.
Truly, that’s what music is for me. To make us feel less alone in what we are going through. Writing songs from a witness perspective is what I feel drawn to, that’s the anchor of the mission for me. I have played this song through all the different radio touring and the part that sticks with me the most is when people at radio tell me stories of people they have loved and lost after.
You recently partnered up with Brandi Carlile for Cracker Barrel’s “Five Decades, One Voice” initiative. What was that like? Did she give you any advice?
That was the craziest day; I was losing my mind because I love her so much. We were sharing stories and her perspective and I said, “What’s the best advice you have gotten?” And she said, “People telling me not to take other people’s advice.” You have to follow your own gut. You can learn from people and take what you need, but it’s gotta come from you.