To Tenille Townes, there’s no such thing as dreaming too big — and why should she restrain herself? So far, her wildest dreams are coming true, whether it’s performing at the Grand Ole Opry, playing to arena crowds or teaming up with her musical heroes.
“It’s really been surreal knowing this crazy dream that I dreamt as a kid is actually happening,” the 25-year-old Canadian tells PEOPLE. “It’s wild.”
Her latest dream-come-true is a collaboration with Grammy-winning Americana artist Brandi Carlile and country icon Tanya Tucker as part of “Five Decades, One Voice,” Cracker Barrel’s 50th-anniversary initiative that celebrates women in country music.
Carlile handpicked Townes for the music-video shoot after being wowed by Townes’ debut single, “Somebody's Daughter,” which tells the moving story of her real-life encounter with a young panhandler on a Nashville street corner.
“That song is just so brilliant and beyond her years,” Carlile says. “For me to see that innate worth in someone, it actually took having kids and being in my thirties,” adds Carlile, who is 38 and the mother of two. “The fact that she does not have kids and that she’s in her twenties is astounding to me.”
What’s more astounding — and something that Carlile didn’t even know at the time — is the fact that Townes has been the driving force behind a $1.5 million fundraising effort to support the shelter for teenage “somebody’s daughters” and sons in her hometown of Grande Prairie, Alberta. It’s no wonder Carlile didn’t know. When talking about the song, Townes doesn’t bring up the volunteer undertaking unless she’s asked about it, and she quickly deflects the credit.
“I just feel honored to be a part of it,” she says.
In fact, the annual fundraising concert is yet another one of Townes’ “crazy dreams,” which she singlehandedly launched when she was just 15 years old and learned the shelter was about to close. The event has endured and grown even since Townes moved to Nashville at age 19: Last year it raised $240,000 and featured performances by Townes, Nashville songwriting legend Tom Douglas and fellow Canadians High Valley.
Of course, Townes confirms, she immediately thought of the shelter when she spotted the Nashville panhandler. Her impulse to respond with a song was just as natural: One of her prime motivations as an artist, she says, is music’s power to do good.
“Music or writing songs or being able to stand on this platform of sorts is like a spiritual experience to me,” she says. “And I somehow am learning to be a vessel for that. What means the most to me in all of this is the fact that music has the potential to make people feel like they’re not alone in what they’re going through.”
But don’t think Townes is all virtue. She’s just as driven by the sheer joy of performing that she discovered when she was a girl. That realization arrived after another crazy dream that Townes had when she and her family made the five-hour car trip to Edmonton, Alberta, to see Canadian superstar Shania Twain.
The whole way, Townes says, she was convinced she somehow would end up on stage with her idol. “I was, like, I’m going to sing with Shania tonight,” she recalls. “I don’t know how. I just believed it.”
Dressed in a costume inspired by one of Twain’s signature outfits, Townes stationed herself near the stage, belting out every song and holding a sign that said, “Shania, can I please sing with you?”
Finally, Twain noticed. “She reached her hand out and I threw the sign behind me, grabbed her hand and danced around this stage with my hero,” Townes says. “And I remember looking out into this curtain of lights, and 18,000 people are screaming behind it. And then I look into Shania Twain’s eyes, going, am I dreaming this? This is insane.”
As the two sang “Honey, I'm Home” Townes says, “that was really the moment when I went, this is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I can’t wait to pack out some arena someday and pull up some 9-year-old kid and light that same fire the way that she did for me.”
It’s just one more crazy dream, but she’s already closer to it than a lot of up-and-comers. She’s been playing arenas this year as Dierks Bentley’s opener, reappearing during his set to sing his duet “Different for Girls.”
“He’ll bring me on stage and say all kinds of things [about me] that honestly make me want to cry so much,” Townes says. “He’s just such a kind soul. He’s definitely walking the walk to lift up female voices.”
Cracker Barrel’s project is another opportunity for Townes to be a beneficiary of efforts to support women in country. She and Carlile teamed on “Somebody’s Daughter” and on Carlile’s “Fulton County Jane Doe,” a song inspired by the real-life account of an unidentified murder victim. Then the two women joined Tanya Tucker on her classic, “Delta Dawn,” also a song about a woman on the margins. Video of all three performances are being rolled out on Cracker Barrel’s website and social channels.
“It’s incredible, thematically, how much these songs tied together,” Townes says. “When I found out the songs we were doing, I was like, wow, these could literally be the same girl.”
Reflecting on the collaboration, Carlile says she came away even more impressed with Townes. “She was prepared, she was humble, she was confident,” Carlile recalls. “And she delivered a really potent performance. Tanya and I both became huge fans of Tenille’s that day.”
As for Townes, she recalls driving home from the session, savoring the experience and wondering, “Did I just dream that whole thing up?”
Well, yes, she did. And not unexpectedly, it also came true. Crazy.