The sun sets over the ranch, a can of beer cracks, and an acoustic guitar wrangles the day's thoughts and memories into a semblance of order.
During moments like these, California-born and Nashville-based singer and songwriter Emily Nenni chronicles her life through delicate songcraft rife with honky-tonk spirit and spiked with just the right amount of soul. In possession of a deep understanding of music stoked by a lifelong passion and sharp chops shaped by endless sets in smoky bars and sizzling doublewides, she asserts herself as the consummate country storyteller on her full-length debut album, On The Ranch [Normaltown/New West Records].
"What I love about country is the songs can be very honest and vulnerable, yet they're beautiful enough to make you cry," she notes. "My music is sweet and sad, but I don't take myself too seriously. It's old school honky-tonk with a slightly different flavor."
Her story represents the difference. Growing up in the Bay Area "in a family of music nerds," her father worked in radio, and she even attended her first Bruce Springsteen show in utero. Mom and dad took her to countless concerts as a kid and regaled her with endless tales of music lore. Emily's mother introduced her to the likes of Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Hank Williams, while her father spun James Brown and John Coltrane. Following high school, she attended Columbia College with a major in audio engineering. After a year, she dropped out and saved up enough money to move to Nashville -- despite not knowing a soul in the city. In order to break into the iconic Robert's Western World on Broadway, she baked cookies for the bouncers and house band, finding herself on stage not long after. Simultaneously, she sharpened her skills at Santa's Pub, often playing all night and building a buzz in the process.
"I moved to Nashville, because it felt homey to me," she says. "Once I got there, it was a big country music education."
Eventually, she linked up with producer and frequent collaborator Mike Eli. Together, they cut her independent debut LP, Hell of a Woman, in 2017. Next up, she joined forces with Teddy and The Rough Riders for the I Owe You Nothin' EP before serving up 2020's Long Game EP. The latter's title track cracked over 1 million streams as she caught the attention of Normaltown & New West and signed to the label. Plus, she earned critical acclaim from the likes of Glide Magazine who proclaimed, "Nenni possesses a unique and deeply charismatic vocal charm."
Around the same time, she ventured to Colorado for a job at a ranch.
"Mike's wife worked there," she goes on. "She's a legitimate cowgirl. The owner needed an extra hand, so I served meals, took care of her kid, and played for guests once a week. I'm definitely not a real cowgirl though. Outside of my jobs, I played with the dogs, wrote most of the record, and, mostly, drank beer," she laughs.
She recorded On The Ranch with Eli and Alex Lyon. Fittingly, Emily introduces the album with the title track and first single "On The Ranch." The beat simmers beneath slick dobro and a rollicking lead riff. Her bright verses give way to an unshakable rhyming refrain, "Out on the ranch to avoid my troubles, looks like I've got double."
"The ranch was beautiful," she says. "It was located right on the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Sonically, the song has an eighties honky-tonk feel, which I love."
Then, there's "In the Mornin.'" Guitar creaks as her voice rings out with a promise, "When the sun comes up, I'm hitting the road."
"You can stay at my house, but in the morning, you've got to get out of here," she elaborates. "I wrote it from a female perspective where it's a woman saying this instead of the man."
Elsewhere, "Useless" hinges on a funky groove as her seductively soulful croon glides over the percussion.
"During lockdown, I heard a lot of people who aren't musicians say, 'Oh, you have all of this time to write,'" she recalls. "I felt useless, because I wasn't able to go out and play or even work my restaurant job for a few months. My first shift back was weird. Here I am at a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, and I'm putting food in plastic containers with stickers on them. It felt good to have a purpose though. When I got back in the car after my first shift, the melody came into my head. It was great energy all at once."
Affirming her outlier voice, "Can Chaser" musically nods to nineties country as it pays tribute to "women in the rodeo" with nothing but love.
"I wrote a song about female barrel racers that's not demeaning," she counters. "It was a good way to start my first record, because it has feminist themes."
In the end, Emily gives country a new perspective altogether.
"When you listen to me, I hope you relate," she leaves off. "I hope you laugh, cry, and want to hear more. I'm a honky-tonk girl who's just getting started."