Mitchell Tenpenny has seen country music change and grow as much as anyone.
The 34-year-old singer/songwriter was born and raised in Nashville, and grew up listening to and playing in rock bands. He watched as the country he grew up on slowly merged with his rock and pop interests and witnessed firsthand the expansion of his hometown’s music scene from its cowboy boot roots to a multi-genre hub for the entire industry.
Now, with hits like his breakout multi-platinum “Drunk Me” and more recent charting singles “Truth About You” and “We Got History” from 2022’s This Is the Heavy, Tenpenny has fully fused his classic country sensibilities and songwriting with his love of rock and aspects of pop music. It’s part of why he was quick to turn away from the country standard of Telecaster guitars and classic rock Les Pauls in favor of the more modern solutions provided by PRS.
SPIN spoke with the country/rock/pop artist about his history, the evolution of country music, and his favorite guitar brand.
SPIN: What has your relationship with PRS been like?
Mitchell Tenpenny: For a few years now, it’s been absolutely incredible. Honestly, everything we’ve asked for or needed or anything, they’ve been so willing and so fast to get. It doesn’t matter if it’s guitars on the road or whatever else, they’re incredible. I met PRS through another buddy who was working with an artist named Kane Brown. We were playing a show together and he was showing me all of his gear. I’m a big guitar nerd like that, so I love to see everybody’s stuff. We were just playing a bunch of stuff he had, and he was just telling me ‘Man, I gotta hook you up and connect you with them.’ He sent an email and connected me that day, and we’ve been working together ever since. Every single one of us plays PRS on stage now. When you’ve grown up as a kid playing guitar and hoping to have something like that one day — and then you hear nightmares from friends — this is an absolute dream. PRS has been nothing but incredible. The guitars are amazing. It’s definitely helped our life on the road tremendously. It’s been a blessing so far.
What is it specifically that made you fall in love with PRS guitars?
Well, the playability is great, but it’s also the pickups. They’re hotter pickups, so you get bigger gain. If you’re doing that older style of traditional country, you want the single-coil Telecaster sound for chicken pickin’. But Nashville country is more rock and more pop, so you need a wider gain range, bigger sustain, and just a different type of music. Every guitar has a different type of sound, which is why I love them so much. I grew up on Les Pauls — and I played them on stage forever — but, dude, they just got too heavy. I was doing it every night and my back was hurting, so I had to try something new. I never had a PRS growing up, but I always wanted one. When we finally started playing them, I was like “Man, I’ve been missing out for quite a while.” They don’t break my back, they play fast and strong, and they’re beautiful too. The quality, the craftsmanship, the paint, they just look awesome. dude. I’ve been falling more and more in love with them. I told them I wanted one that I could flip the gain off and on while playing so I don’t have to switch so many guitars out on stage, and they sent me this new model where it’s the best of both worlds. They just continue to stay with the times and innovate for modern artists. They’re authentic and consistent, which is very hard for these big brands to do. My whole arsenal on stage right now is different styles of PRS. You know I had to have the Silver Sky, because I love John Mayer. I got a friggin’ Mark Tremonti out there, because I loved Creed. It’s perfect for five songs that have these high-gain big power chords. I love PRS, as they’ve given me such a great opportunity to explore things that I didn’t have a chance to explore before,
How do you see high-end electric guitars changing and shaping country music, when they’re often thought of as more of a rock and roll instrument?
I’m born and raised in Nashville, so I grew up in the country music industry the business of it, but I was always in rock bands. I was an emo kid. I played drums and guitar for a lot of different bands, and I was always hoping that one day I could afford a guitar like a PRS with the signature birds on the neck. It’s one of the coolest things to me. So it’s awesome to see country get more into rock and roll. I love country music, but “country” to me is in the lyrics and the story. I absolutely love rock, and I like to bring that side of me and those guitar tones when I play. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Telecaster, but there’s nothing like the rock sound that PRS produces, man. Plus, the playability of a PRS straight out of the box means we never have to do much work on them. I have my own preference for how I set stuff up, but they play so good right when they arrive at the house that my other guitar player doesn’t even set his up. He says he likes the way they’re set up from the beginning. They send absolute quality stuff that sounds great, and it’s perfect for us to rock it up. We got gained up guitars, and that’s why my last record was called This Is the Heavy. PRS has been a massive part of that for me.
As a native Nashville guy, what’s it been like to see how the city has grown as a music hub over the last couple of decades?
It’s everything I wanted it to be, man. My friends and I are a bunch of emo and rock kids playing country music, so I call it “farm emo.” Nashville has always had country and rock, but now it’s got soul, jazz, R&B, and now there’s a massive rap scene coming up that I never saw growing up. My favorite part is collaborating with everybody from every genre, because that’s what I love. I hate trying to fit into one thing. I’ve never really understood that because that was never how my CD and tape jackets looked. It was never one genre for me, and I feel like most people are like that. For Nashville to be this big melting pot of not just people, but of artistry, it’s been so much fun. You never know who you’re walking into the room with.
How have you seen that fusion of country and rock and pop change the genre as a whole?
I grew up listening to NSYNC and Backstreet Boys because I loved their melodies, and Prince and Michael Jackson are the artists who started me as a songwriter. I think the way the world works these days has a big effect on why things have been able to change so much. There will always be the purists who think “This is the only way it can possibly be,” but I think we’re seeing a lot of that change across the spectrum of society. There’s a new generation of fans that were raised with a lot more access to music. Our grandparents didn’t have a lot of choices, but we have so much access to music that we’ve had the opportunity to fall in love with lots of different things. I think it’s almost impossible these days to only like one thing, because there’s just too much good stuff around us at all times. I love not having to fight for or defend what I enjoy playing. There will always be critics who say it’s not “country,” but, again, country is in the storytelling to me. If we keep doing the same thing, it’s going to get so boring. I’m not Hank [Williams]. I’m not Willie [Nelson]. If you want that, listen to Hank and Willie.