Faith and music can make for a powerful mix. That’s always been evident in the continuing popularity of religious rock, Christian music and the sounds of sacred sacraments. For Mitch Townley, the two muses are clearly connected, and each manages to intersect the other.
Most days, Townley can be found at West Hills Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, where he’s been director of children’s ministries since 1996. However, for the past five years, he has also been seen performing his own original music at various local venues, among them, Vienna Coffeehouse in Maryville, Open Chord in Knoxville and the Townsend Abbey in Townsend. For the past couple of years, he’s also participated in the Smoky Mountain Songwriters Festival in Gatlinburg.
Townley describes himself as a “singer-songwriter,” as opposed to a “performing vocalist.” He said he mostly enjoys performing at songwriter-in-the-round session with other artists.
“It is a blast,” he said, his enthusiasm all too obvious.
As a youngster, Townley was always on the move. His father was in the Navy, and as a result, the family relocated a dozen times before he turned 18. Nevertheless, music was always a constant presence in his home, as well as in the car while on frequent road trips.
“It was mostly Top 40,” he said of those sounds. “My parents were both involved in theater programs in college, so I grew up listening to many old school musicals. I loved it, and sang in choirs and musicals in high school. My brother played the piano. My influences were all the singer-songwriters of the ’70s. I was especially enamored by James Taylor, Jim Croce, Carol King and Dan Fogelberg. I collected lots of their albums and cassette tapes.”
Nevertheless, Townley wasn’t motivated to pick up a guitar and start playing himself until he was in his late 20s. Earlier though, he caught a creative bug while in middle school where he began writing what he described as “poems, plays, stories, funny song parodies.” However it wasn’t until after his second child was born that he began writing songs in earnest.
“It was more conducive to parenting and my marriage than being out playing golf,” he explained. “I was introduced to Christian music at the time and there was a husband/wife duo I really liked who sang a lot about family life. I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got a wife and two kids. I could do the same thing, and we could hit the road.’ Well, the other three members of our would-be quartet were not in agreement.
“I ended up playing a lot of children’s songs at church, birthday parties, the library, and school functions during my two years of seminary school at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. So initially, I would write about my family and my Christian faith.”
While he was in seminary, Townley took a class in Christian songwriting. The instructor was a local artist who took a shine to his writing, especially his lyrics.
“I remember her saying ‘These are lyrics desperately in search of a melody,’” he said. “She was totally correct, and I’ve come a long way since then.”
Quite a long way indeed. The two wrote a song together that was picked up by a Nashville publisher right before his move to Knoxville in 1996.
“I thought, ‘That was easy, I’m on my way,’ but nothing came of it,” Townley said. “I did have an accompaniment track of it that was produced and my oldest daughter sang it at her high school graduation and on Father’s Day at church. Those were humble beginnings.”
Fortunately though, that wasn’t the end of the line. Townley said that he made it his mission to connect with other people that might possibly have an interest in his music.
“Through a variety of online songwriting communities, I started pitching my songs to publishers and artists,” he said. “Success is very dependent on relationships you form with people, as well as having them take an interest in you as a writer and in your catalog of songs. It all takes time, patience, perseverance and humility.”
Townley took his own advice and it all paid off. A song he co-wrote called “How We Roll” was signed to a publisher in Nashville who primarily pitched songs for film and television placements. It ended up on the television series “Nashville.”
“My publisher called me up one day in November 2013 and told me the song was going to be used as background music for a concert scene in an episode airing in December,” Townley said “The scene was at the very end of the show. I remember watching and watching the episode, thinking it may have been cut out. But then I heard it. It was a pretty awesome moment.”
It was fall 2017 when Townley pitched another of his co-writes, a song called “This Side Of Sunday,” to Christian country artist Brent Harrison. Harrison ended up recording it, and in the spring of 2018, it spent eight weeks at the No. 1 position on the Christian Country Countdown. Then, in January, 2019, he was told it was one of 10 finalists for an Inspirational Country Music Association award. The awards ceremony took place at the Grand Ole Opry on April 4.
“It was quite the gala event,” he said. “Our song ended up being the winner. It was a very surreal feeling ... and on the day before my birthday.”
Other accomplishments awaited as well. In addition to having his songs recorded by over 40 independent artists, he composed the theme song for the Smoky Mountain Service Dog Association, contributed advertising jingles to a pair of local businesses, and, perhaps most significantly of all, had a song he cowrote called “The Wall Song” featured in the award winning 2018 documentary about Vietnam Memorial, “The Wall’s Embrace.” The producers took notice after its YouTube video garnered over a million views. Written from the perspective of a soldier whose name was listed on the wall, it has since been sung at numerous Vietnam Veterans events and translated into Vietnamese.
Not surprisingly, Townley has advice for other budding songwriters.
“Write because you have to, not because you need to,” he said.
“Be polite and humble, and you will make some great friends along the journey.”