How Nashville Singer Jenny Tolman Created a Country Music WonkaLand

Welcome to Jennyville. Population: …It’s complicated. On a spring morning in Nashville, though, it’s four: the town’s titular Jenny Tolman, producer Dave Brainard, Tolman’s publicist and me. We’re seated in Brainard and Tolman’s home studio, discussing the origins of Tolman’s forthcoming album There Goes the Neighborhood, and its fascinating, funny and fictional setting.

A loose concept album, the entire record takes place within “Jennyville,” a Willy Wonka-like burg full of eccentric characters that Tolman created as a way to “take a microscope to the really small town.” In Jennyville, there is beauty, but also warts, and her songwriting exposes both with humor, candor and a heaping helping of compassion.

“Dave actually brought up Jennyville one day and said, ‘What if we actually had a place where all of these people are?’” Tolman says. “Ever since then, when we see something we’re like, ‘That’s so Jennyville.’ And it’s not in an egotistical, big-headed way, like where it’s all about me. It’s the exact opposite: It’s me getting to portray this character or this person. I always say, ‘If Dolly [Parton] has Dollywood, why can’t Jenny have Jennyville?’”

Today, Tolman is premiering the official music video for “High Class White Trash,” a slinky, slow-burning ode to the messy mischief that comes when highbrow hijinks and lowbrow blues collide. “Nothing like a fresh coat of lipstick painted on bright/you can say the kinda shit that mama wouldn’t like,” Tolman sings with a Maybelline-red smirk. Appropriately, the video takes place in the epicenter of small-town gossip: the nail salon.

“High Class White Trash” wasn’t the first song Tolman wrote for There Goes the Neighborhood, due July 19th, but it’s the one that opened the gates to Jennyville. It also gave her the chance to step into the shoes — whether sensible slip-ons or stilettos — of characters that fascinated her.

“‘High Class White Trash’ was the song where all of the sudden we’re like, ‘OK, this is opening the door to these characters and this concept that we had been dancing around for a little while,’” says Tolman, who first caught some attention with the 2017 song “Stripper for a Week.” “It was me getting to narrate something in a different voice than I normally would sing in.”

“We love listening to the Bobby Bare’s Lullabys, Legends, and Lies record and Shel Silverstein,” adds Brainard, who earned a Grammy nomination for producing Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories. “I’ve always thought we’re missing fiction [in today’s country music]. Nobody writes in tall tales anymore, these things that are larger than life.”

Sonically, There Goes the Neighborhood is one of the more ambitious country releases coming this summer. Many of the arrangements are bigger than a beauty shop up-do, and several tracks zig where one might expect a zag, like on the standout “Tulips.” In addition to showcasing Tolman’s knack for clever wordplay, the song starts off with a honky-tonk shuffle, increases the tempo to double-time and finally ends with a full-on can-can.

That Tolman would love the can-can is no coincidence. Her father was a member of a barbershop quartet — the Indian River Boys — at Burt Reynolds’ dinner theater in Jupiter, Florida, and ran in the same circle as Reynolds, Jim Nabors and Dom DeLuise in the Eighties. This was around the time of the release of the Parton-Reynolds film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which Tolman watched for the first time while she and Brainard were working on the album.

“I fell in love with the song ‘A Little Bitty Pissant Country Place,’” Tolman says of the film’s soundtrack. “It’s the song all the girls and [Parton] sing, with the can-can kick line. That became my song I’d listen to before I went on stage. It would put me in the zone of the character, with the sassy energy and all that. When we went in to record this, Dave was like, ‘We need something different and not just this classic country sound.’ I was like, ‘Well what if we did a can-can section?’ So we tried it and fell in love.” (In more ways than one: Tolman and Brainard began a romantic relationship while making the LP.)

The songwriting on There Goes the Neighborhood leans toward the humorous, culminating in the irreverent title track. In “There Goes the Neighborhood,” the neighborhood in question is turned upside-down by a hunky new resident, with the “High Class White Trash Welcoming Committee” attempting to woo the newcomer with “Brittany’s biscuits” and “Hannah’s honey ham,” only to find out, much to their chagrin, that he “swings the other way.”

A song like that could easily — accidentally or otherwise — devolve into homophobia, but Tolman doesn’t use the man’s sexuality as a punch line. Instead, the joke is the women’s sudden collective realization that they’ve turned against one another. Elsewhere, on “My Welcome Mat,” Tolman preaches unity across racial, religious, economic and ideological divides. Everyone, it seems, is welcome in Jennyville.

Especially one-of-a-kind personalities.

“The things I’ve always loved about country music are the storytelling and the characters,” Tolman says. “Dolly is one of my favorites, and Roger Miller. They’ve always been able to say these super weird, wacky things but make a lot of sense out of it. It’s enlightened wackiness, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”

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