Welcome to Jennyville

Joel Oliphint
Jenny Tolman

Jenny Tolman wrote a lot of her recently released debut album, There Goes the Neighborhood, with producer David Brainard, and the more they wrote, they realized that certain characters kept reappearing, and they all seemed to live in the same community.

“One day when we were writing ‘High Class White Trash,’ [Brainard] was like, ‘What if all these people actually do live in a place? And what if we call it Jennyville?’” Tolman said recently by phone. “It was just a fun place to create from, but it actually ended up turning into this really cool concept for the album.”

In between tracks on There Goes the Neighborhood, Tolman inserts commercials from Jennyville businesses, like Tuffy’s Auto Shop, and even a local weather forecast (“50 percent chance of rain; 100 percent chance of gossip”). “It really helps paint a picture of what this town is and who these characters are,” Tolman said. “If you listen to the record, you're guaranteed to be like, ‘Oh, yeah. I know that person.' Or maybe, 'I'm that person.’ It's a nice little escape, but it's also not too much of an escape that it feels unbelievable.”

The songs, led by Tolman’s playful, perfectly pitched vocals, feel rooted in reality partly because many of the characters are based on real people. On “High Class White Trash,” for instance, Tolman sings about a woman with “champagne taste on a Natty Light budget,” which was inspired by Tolman’s sister. “She had Louis Vuitton and Chanel handbags that she would take to high school and wear her high heels everywhere,” Tolman said. “We were very different growing up. I shopped at Target. I've always poked fun at her lovingly for that. Luckily for her, she's moved past the Natty Light budget.”

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Even the goofy Tuffy’s commercial, which features a barbershop quartet, indirectly references Tolman’s childhood. “The barbershop quartet on the album is actually my dad's old quartet. It was their first time reuniting after 30 years,” she said. “They were all singers at Burt Reynolds’ dinner theater in Jupiter, Florida, years ago. On the opening night, it was ‘The Music Man,’ and Burt and Dolly Parton were there because they had just been shooting ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’ After the first show, Burt and Dolly went backstage, and they were talking to my dad and the rest of the guys, and they were like, ‘You guys are going to stay together, and we're going to call you The Indian River Boys, and we're going to take you to LA and you're going to make a record.’ And it actually ended up happening!”

Tolman’s dad eventually moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, and the quartet even sang on Garth Brooks' No Fences. Later on, her father moved to the business side of music, which enabled her to hang out backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and meet the likes of Reba McEntire, Sara Evans and Bobby Bare.

“I’ve been really blessed to not have to be thrown into an industry that I wasn't familiar with,” she said. “I knew that everybody's a little crazy, and so I'm more prepared for it. And I'm definitely a little crazy, too.”

Still, being a woman in the country music business can exert a specific kind of pressure, which Tolman addresses in soul-baring confessional “Love You Too.” “I'm tryin' not to criticize everything I see/But you really could stand to lose a pound or two or three,” Tolman sings to herself in the mirror. “One day you're gonna tell me that you love me/And when you do, you will love you, too," she later resolves.

“I went through a really hard time with body image, as I think a lot of girls do, but especially in this social media age where everybody’s posting perfect pictures of themselves. And being in the music industry, too, where everybody is beautiful ... there is a standard that you feel upheld to. I was just feeling crippled by it and started to dislike myself, and I didn't like that,” Tolman said. “One day I was sitting in my apartment living room, just feeling so bad, and I was like, ‘This is so stupid. This is not who you are.’ And there’s so many people out there that are feeling the same thing. … If you don’t love yourself, then you’re not going to be able to understand anything else around you for what it is.”

Similar feelings drove her to write “So Pretty,” a true story about a woman who Tolman said didn’t deserve her ire. “I was dating this new guy, and he was really good friends with his ex, and everybody knew her and was like, ‘Oh, she's so nice. She's so pretty. She's the sweetest.’ And I'm like, ‘Oh, my God. She's awful. I hate her!’” Tolman said. “It’s those really ugly feelings that we all feel but try not to feel.”

In the context of There Goes the Neighborhood, heavier songs like “Love You Too” and “So Pretty” are offset by those commercials, weather forecasts and more lighthearted, grin-inducing fare — a balancing act that Tolman traced all the way back to elementary school. “I used to write stories and read them to the class, and even in my storytelling I would have commercial breaks. They would always be some type of ridiculous, stupid commercial just to try and make everybody laugh,” she said. “If you can make people laugh, you make them comfortable with you. And once they're comfortable, then they're really open to hearing what you actually have to say.”

Ace of Cups

8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19

2619 N. High St., Old North


Jenny Tolman