The first time I heard Tenille Townes, I knew she was the real deal. Her proper major-label debut release was an all-acoustic EP titled The Living Room Worktapes, and it was a masterpiece. Townes has a strong but unusual voice that conveys depths of empathy and emotion, as well as a talent for crafting songs that ask deep existential questions about what we’re doing here, how we connect with one another, and what the afterlife might look like, among other things. These talents are impressive in any context, but there’s something about hearing them over a sparse acoustic arrangement that makes them all the more jaw-dropping. Listening to The Living Room Worktapes captures the way it feels to hear a complete unknown at an open mic night—just voice, guitar, and unbelievable songwriting—and be absolutely bowled over by their talent. While just four songs long, that release left me with the highest of hopes for what Townes’ career might hold. Here was an artist with Lori McKenna’s talent for storytelling and understanding of the human condition, paired with a Patty Griffin-like voice that could cut you right to the soul.
I didn’t know how long I would wait to hear a proper full-length from Townes, or how much the major label country music system would (seemingly) try to transform her in the interim. The Living Room Worktapes arrived on April 13, 2018—more than 26 months ahead of Townes’ proper debut album. In July of that same year, Townes dropped the first single from the as-yet-untitled The Lemonade Stand, a full-band version of a Worktapes song called “Somebody’s Daughter.” On the Worktapes EP, “Somebody’s Daughter” is a staggering accomplishment, written from the perspective of a girl who is driving home one day when she comes upon a homeless woman at a stoplight, holding a cardboard sign and begging for change. In the time it takes for the light to turn from red to green, Townes envisions this woman’s entire life—from sitting at a lemonade stand with her childhood best friend to having her first kiss at some high school dance—before ultimately questioning why fate leads some people down the harder roads of life. “Now this light will turn green, and I’ll hand her a couple dollars/And I’ll wonder how she fell and no one caught her/She’s somebody’s daughter.” The song is a brilliant example of Townes’s humility and empathy as a songwriter. It works best in a stripped-down capacity where its lyrics can deliver the hardest punch. The album version is a sped-up, overproduced take weighed down by glitchy electronic effects and an overbearing electric guitar lead. It saps the song of much of its intimacy, pulls focus from the story, and makes the lyrics sound almost out of place when you do focus on them. It’s an arrangement that makes an incredible song sound a whole lot more like a dime-a-dozen pop-country radio jam than like the thoughtful existential crisis it is.
Worktapes ends up being the specter that hangs over The Lemonade Stand, a very good record that I’d probably call a great one if I weren’t aware of what Townes is truly capable of. We see that potential frequently throughout this record, mostly on the songs that sound closest to the stripped-down intimacy that the Worktapes EP displayed. “When I Meet My Maker,” for instance, is a spine-tingling acoustic ballad that reckons viscerally with faith and mortality, while “The Most Beautiful Things,” the achingly gorgeous closing track, is a masterclass in songwriting that wisely lets the lyric and Townes’ emotive vocal take center stage (more on that later). But there’s an identity crisis of sorts on this record, too, visible most clearly on the full-band versions of the four Worktapes songs. The best of that quartet is “Jersey on the Wall,” which is also the song that has changed the least from the arrangement that most fans heard first. Another display of deep empathy, “Jersey on the Wall,” tells the true story of a teenage sports star who was killed in a tragic car accident, as well as the crisis of faith that Townes felt as she questioned God in the aftermath. The other two Worktapes numbers, “Where You Are” and “White Horse,” are both very solid here but aren’t quite the standouts they could have been with a gentler studio touch. On the EP, these two songs are resplendent, searching love songs, carrying some of the same weightless grace that Kacey Musgraves exuded on her Grammy-winning Golden Hour. (Not coincidentally, Townes cut The Living Room Worktapes with Daniel Tashian, one of the producers on Golden Hour.) On record, they’re still good songs—especially “White Horse,” which gets remade with a relentless foot-tapping beat—but they do lose some of their magic.
It’s easy to blame the production for stripping away some of what made Tenille Townes sound so beguiling and unique on that debut EP—at least until you look at who produced The Lemonade Stand. The man behind the boards is Jay Joyce, whose resume is, quite frankly, staggering. Joyce came up playing guitar as a sessions musician for everyone from The Wallflowers to Matthew Ryan to Macy Gray, before eventually becoming a go-to producer for renowned country stars. He’s the guy you get if you want to make a record that sounds a little bit glossier than what Dave Cobb does, but don’t want to lose the authentic, organic sound that you get from having a great band play live in a room together. In recent years, he’s produced sublime-sounding country records for Eric Church, Brothers Osborne, Brandy Clark, Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde, and others. Yet on The Lemonade Stand, he seems to have messed up the mixture, overseeing a palette of sound that is sometimes glossy to the point of sounding shrink-wrapped. Very often, the pop gloss still works—as on “Holding out for the One,” the kinetic and hooky pop song that opens the record; or “Lighthouse,” which has a hazy War on Drugs-esque arena rock sweep. But even some of the best songs here could likely have done with a little bit less studio wizardry: case-in-point is “Come as You Are,” a riotously catchy rave-up that would have been even better with a loose backwoods string band arrangement (like the one Townes teased in this video).
And yet, despite everything—despite the overblown production, despite the very long album rollout, and despite the fact that a full album in the style of The Living Room Worktapes probably would have made for a Musgraves-level coming-out party—The Lemonade Stand still succeeds. The songs are simply too good to miss the mark, and Townes puts in a star-making vocal performance across the board, selling every single moment with vulnerability, charisma, and grace. It says something that she can stack a spiritually-minded ballad (“When I Meet My Maker”), a summer-time block party song (“Come as You Are”), and a sexy late-night duet (“The Way You Look Tonight,” with fellow country up-and-comer Keelan Donovan) back-to-back in the tracklist without straining credulity, but she absolutely does. And then she sticks the landing with “The Most Beautiful Things,” the kind of song with a concept so brilliant that it should make every other songwriter in the room feel envious. The verses are about things that are stunning to look at: sunsets, night skies, shooting stars, snow-covered landscapes, the earth as beheld from outer space. But the chorus is the punchline: “Why do we close our eyes/When we pray, cry, kiss, dream?/Maybe the most beautiful things in this life/Are felt and never seen.” It’s an ingeniously simple yet profound idea: that true beauty—and the things that make life most living—also tend to be the things you can never, ever detect with the naked eye. The highest compliment I can pay to Tenille Townes, on this song and in her finest moments, is that hearing her music makes you want to close your eyes and just listen.