Mitchell Tenpenny Reflects on the Grief of 2020 — and the Blessings He Sees Ahead of Him in 2021

Mitchell Tenpenny has long known that life is far too short. But never did that somewhat overused cliché ring as true for him as it did in the pandemic-stained year of 2020.

"Life changed, for all of us," explains Tenpenny, 31, during a recent interview with PEOPLE.  "Things were taken away that we never expected to ever be taken away."

Not only did the road warrior find himself stuck at home in 2020 due to the ongoing pandemic, but the country music hitmaker also lost one of the most special people in his life over the summer when his uncle died after a battle with COVID-19.

"I don't know if it's even hit our family yet," Tenpenny admits quietly. "It's crazy how things happen out of nowhere. After my dad passed away (in 2014), I really leaned on my uncle. And now, he's gone."

The Nashville native's voice fades into the distance.

"A lot of people have that sort of story this year."

Indeed, they do. In 2020 alone, over 340,000 Americans have been lost to COVID-19, leaving countless mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, cousins and friends left behind trying to maneuver an unending and relentless road of grief. But for Tenpenny, the grief of 2020 has also left him with some precious reminders that one must live every day to its fullest.

And it's this simple fact that serves as the backbone of Tenpenny's new song "Bucket List."

"That's what my dad always taught me and my brother growing up, that life is short … so you just always have to go for it," recalls Tenpenny, who lost his father Mitchell James Tenpenny Jr. six years ago after a battle with cancer. "I have noticed that when someone gives you that courage to go for it, that's when you have the best chance of success."

The Nashville native does just that on "Bucket List."

"I had a song ("Walk Like Him") on my last record (Telling All My Secrets) for my dad, so when I started writing the next record, I knew I wanted another song that not only talked about loss, but also about living in the moment," recalls Tenpenny, who bound onto the country music scene back in 2018 with his No. 1 hit "Drunk Me." "It's another song that I thought someone else could hear and take from and use it for hope."

And while the eye-opening "Bucket List" sounds as if it came from the depths of the painful year of 2020, Tenpenny actually wrote it alongside fellow songwriters Chris DeStefano and Laura Veltz back in 2019.

"It was one of those songs that just literally fell out of us," recalls Tenpenny, whose latest single is the emotional "Broken Up."

"We all have our own version of what a bucket list is. So, we all started talking about things we wanted to get done before we cross everything off of our list, you know? I sang it that day, but then I lived with it for a while. But it became this song that my manager kept bringing up, so here we are," he says with a laugh. "It was written for this time, even though it wasn't written in this time."

And it's this time that Tenpenny admits he is still grappling with as the world cautiously greets the year of 2021, still amidst a pandemic and an ongoing uncertainty surrounding the future of live music.

"When you are touring so many days out of the year and playing so many shows, it does become normal, but I never realized how much I would miss it," Tenpenny admits. "When people reached out for your hand on stage, you took it for granted. I never thought in a million years that there would be a time where that can't happen. When we get the chance to go back, I'm going to soak in those kinds of moments."

Tenpenny has already begun to soak in life's little moments, and making some even bigger ones, as he and longtime girlfriend Meghan Patrick, 33, recently embarked on a five-day trip out west to shoot footage for his soon-to-be-released music video for "Bucket List."

"I've toured the country so many times and driven by so many of those places, but I never took the time to stop," says Tenpenny, who visited everywhere from the Grand Canyon to Sedona, Arizona. "It was breathtaking. Standing in those canyons at sunrise was amazing. It made me feel small. It put a lot of things in perspective. It was like I was seeing God."

And that's exactly who Tenpenny is leaning on right now.

"I am a Christian and I believe in God, and I truly have had to lean on that foundation," he says. "It's how I get through these things, like losing family members and basically losing my job and not being able to pay my crew. I just pray through the clouds … and hope someone is listening."

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