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Welcome to Jennyville.
Visitors who take the aural journey inside the city limits will likely find plenty of familiar characters in the fictional town – ambitious workers, strutting ladies, loving partners and fragile souls. While exploring the citizenry, listeners might even find themselves.
In the process, they’ll get to know Jenny Tolman, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter who relays big chunks of her personality as she plays with Jennyville’s inhabitants. The songs are smart, playful, insightful and vulnerable – much like the increasingly successful woman behind them.
Through the provocative “Stripper For A Week,” Tolman is racking up plays on Spotify as she builds a winning concert profile, opening for such country hitmakers as Cole Swindell, Michael Ray and Alabama. Rolling Stone hailed her among “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” and Music Row’s respected reviewer Robert K. Oermann implored Nashville labels to “sign her before somebody else does.”
The autograph lines are growing, and Tolman’s fan base is aggressively interactive, motivated by the truths inside her material, from the “coupon-clipper with a push-up bra” who flirts with the butcher in “Work It” to the woman battling cruel inner voices in “Love You Too.” For an album built around made-up characters, there’s a whole lot of realism, thanks to Tolman’s willingness to tap into the full panorama of her emotions.
“We live in a society where you’re told not to feel things,” she says. “But that’s literally what you survive off of: your feelings and your instincts. So it makes me feel really good to be open and honest about them because I know that people are going to connect to it.”
They connect in part because of Tolman’s voice: smoky, revealing, expressive. And Jennyville is likewise easy to relate to because producer Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark, Jerrod Niemann) opted not to use now-prevalent programmed instruments. The project is awash in acoustic guitars, fiddles, horns and steel guitar – instruments that require a human breath or human touch to generate a sound.
“I love country music, and I love humans, and to me, using computers to make sounds that humans make feels like you’re stealing in some way,” Tolman says. “I like to compare it to the food industry, because I’m also very passionate about eating organic and eating healthy, non-processed food. It feels like music is becoming a processed-food company because it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s cheap. But it’s not necessarily good for you.”
Jennyville is Tolman’s first full album, but it’s not her first recording project. A self-titled EP released at age 18 encapsulated her experiences during the painful teenage years, informed greatly by heartbreak and self-doubt. Jennyville has her occupying a much happier place: positive, charming, witty and hopeful.
“There’s so much hate and so much negativity in the world that it’s overwhelming,” she laments. “I think a lot of times love and goodness is overlooked, but there’s a lot more of it than people realize.”
Tolman perhaps took that for granted in her youth. She grew up in Nashville, the daughter of a talent buyer who started in music as a member of a barbershop quartet, the Indian River Boys. Interacting as a concert professional with the likes of Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and The Oak Ridge Boys, the Tolmans established a safe home environment while treating stardom as if it were run of the mill.
But the effect of country music was not. When Jenny was riding home from dance class around age 6 or 7, Brad Paisley’s barroom romance “We Danced” glided out of the radio speakers. Each successive line in the song set up the next one, the details forming an emotional profile of two people finding their soul mates. And it touched young Jenny.
“Sitting in the backseat, I said, ‘Mom, I think I like country music because it tells stories,’” Tolman recalls. “Back then, we didn’t think anything of that, but now that’s such a vivid memory.”
As she developed, Jenny found that fitting into the world outside of her house was daunting, as it is for teenage girls of every generation. Her mother offered solace in an altered axiom – “Birds of a feather flock together, but eagles fly alone” – but it took years for Jenny to fully incorporate that wisdom.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I know about the eagles, but I don’t want to be alone anymore,’” she recalls. “I would always try to fit in with everybody, but I didn’t. Now it’s so clear – I don’t want to be like anybody else. I just want to be like me, because if I’m like everybody else, then I’m nobody.”
Inspired by Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift and Alicia Keys, Tolman learned to explore her unique self through songwriting, and she discovered she had a real ability to identify even her most complex emotions and to express them in ways that resonated in others. She started playing open-mic nights and guitar pulls in Nashville, timidly at first, but as music professionals invariably recognized her singular creative talent, her confidence increased, as did her circle of associates.
When she played the Dawg House Saloon at the edge of Nashville’s Music Row in 2015, that circle expanded even more. Brainard wandered over after her set to tell her how taken he was with her voice. He had produced one of her favorite albums, Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories, and his belief was encouraging. She met Brainard again a short time later, discovered they shared musical and spiritual beliefs, and began writing regularly.
In addition to the work with Brainard, she hit the writing room with a bevy of accomplished composers, including Mark D. Sanders (“I Hope You Dance”), Rory Bourke (“You Look So Good In Love”), Marty Dodson (“Must Be Doin’ Something Right”), Aaron Raitere (three songs on Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings) and John Goodwin (who’s written for Brad Paisley and Michael McDonald). After stockpiling a massive pile of material, they found a series of songs that fit together. They became Jennyville.
“There’s a huge thread of self-perception and body image and being pretty and being feminine, and a whole take on all of society’s pressures,” she says of the songs. “That, to me in my life, is the most prevalent issue right now: women empowerment and women disempowerment at the same time.”
That’s serious stuff, but it’s balanced through the Jennyville presentation. Bits of the town’s sounds weave through the album, providing a sense of the community: a marching band, a weather report, a train conductor’s voice, a thunderstorm and a radio ad for a car wash, delivered by her father’s reassembled group, the Indian River Boys.
The album touches on several musical genres – blues, jazz and old-school rock & roll – but at its heart, it’s a country collection full of material about working-class people who are easy to visualize, and even easier to like. They’re transcendent in “Ain’t Mary Jane,” despondent in “So Pretty,” artificial in “High Class White Trash,” gracious in “Something To Complain About” and sweetly satisfied in “Used To My Cooking.”
Between their enviable strengths and their humorous flaws, there’s a simple cheer that surrounds life in Jennyville. It reflects the woman behind it – Tolman makes it a habit to post a hand-written social-media note on Sundays from Jenny’s Joy Jar, an easy-going contest that encourages her followers to embrace gratitude. Random winners pick a song for Tolman to cover.
“One of my passions is spreading love and happiness,” she says, “and I believe being grateful for what you have brings even more into your world to be grateful for. Positivity attracts positive energy, and without getting super-hippie, it’s a real thing. It’s a fact. What you put out, you bring in.”
Tolman is putting out good vibes and good music. And with Jennyville, she’s using a fictional community to chronicle the truths – even the uncomfortable parts – about real people, including herself. In the process, she’s making a real connection with an ever-expanding fan base.
“It makes me feel so much better to share it,” she says. “You gain so much power and so much strength by doing that because everybody feels these things. You’re saying, ‘I’m a human, I feel emotions and I know you’re a human, too.’”
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